Tally stick

A tally stick (or simply tally[1]) was an ancient memory aid device used to record and document numbers, quantities, or even messages. Tally sticks first appear as animal bones carved with notches during the Upper Paleolithic; a notable example is the Ishango Bone. Historical reference is made by Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79) about the best wood to use for tallies, and by Marco Polo (1254–1324) who mentions the use of the tally in China. Tallies have been used for numerous purposes such as messaging and scheduling, and especially in financial and legal transactions, to the point of being currency.

Medieval tally sticks
Medieval English split tally stick (front and reverse view). The stick is notched and inscribed to record a debt owed to the rural dean of Preston Candover, Hampshire, of a tithe of 20d each on 32 sheep, amounting to a total sum of £2 13s. 4d.

Kinds of tallies

SAM PC 1 - Tally sticks 1 - Overview
Single and split tallies from the Swiss Alps, 18th to early 20th century (Swiss Alpine Museum)

Principally, there are two different kinds of tally sticks: the single tally and the split tally. A common form of the same kind of primitive counting device is seen in various kinds of prayer beads.

Paleolithic tally sticks

A number of anthropological artefacts have been conjectured to be tally sticks:

Single tally

The single tally stick was an elongated piece of bone, ivory, wood, or stone which is marked with a system of notches (see: Tally marks). The single tally stick serves predominantly mnemonic purposes. Related to the single tally concept are messenger sticks (e.g., Inuit tribes), the knotted cords, khipus or quipus, as used by the Inca. Herodotus (c. 485–425 BC) reported the use of a knotted cord by Darius I of Persia (c. 521–486 BC).

Split tally

The split tally was a technique which became common in medieval Europe, which was constantly short of money (coins) and predominantly illiterate, in order to record bilateral exchange and debts. A stick (squared hazelwood sticks were most common) was marked with a system of notches and then split lengthwise. This way the two halves both record the same notches and each party to the transaction received one half of the marked stick as proof. Later this technique was refined in various ways and became virtually tamper proof. One of the refinements was to make the two halves of the stick of different lengths. The longer part was called stock and was given to the party which had advanced money (or other items) to the receiver. The shorter portion of the stick was called foil and was given to the party which had received the funds or goods. Using this technique each of the parties had an identifiable record of the transaction. The natural irregularities in the surfaces of the tallies where they were split would mean that only the original two halves would fit back together perfectly, and so would verify that they were matching halves of the same transaction. If one party tried to unilaterally change the value of his half of the tally stick by adding more notches, the absence of those notches would be apparent on the other party's tally stick. The split tally was accepted as legal proof in medieval courts and the Napoleonic Code (1804) still makes reference to the tally stick in Article 1333.[5] Along the Danube and in Switzerland the tally was still used in the 20th century in rural economies.

Split tally

TNA gates
Entrance gates to the UK National Archives, Kew, from Ruskin Avenue. The notched vertical elements were inspired by medieval tally sticks.

The most prominent and best recorded use of the split tally stick or "nick-stick"[6][7] being used as a form of currency[8] was when Henry I introduced the tally stick system in medieval England in around 1100. He would accept the tally stick only for taxes, and it was a tool of the Exchequer for the collection of taxes by local sheriffs (tax farmers "farming the shire") for seven centuries. The split tally of the Exchequer was in continuous use until 1826. In 1834 tally sticks representing six centuries worth of financial records were ordered to be burned in a stove in the Houses of Parliament. The resulting fire set the chimney ablaze and then spread until most of the building was destroyed.[8] This event was described by Charles Dickens in an 1855 article on administrative reform.[9]

The system of tally marks of the Exchequer is described in The Dialogue Concerning the Exchequer (see external links below) as follows:

The manner of cutting is as follows. At the top of the tally a cut is made, the thickness of the palm of the hand, to represent a thousand pounds; then a hundred pounds by a cut the breadth of a thumb; twenty pounds, the breadth of the little finger; a single pound, the width of a swollen barleycorn; a shilling rather narrower; then a penny is marked by a single cut without removing any wood.

The cuts were made the full width of the stick so that, after splitting, the portion kept by the issuer (the stock) exactly matched the piece (the foil) given as a receipt. Each stick had to have the details of the transaction written on it, in ink, to make it a valid record.[10]

Royal tallies (debt of the Crown) also played a role in the formation of the Bank of England at the end of the 17th century. In 1697, the bank issued £1 million worth of stock in exchange for £800,000 worth of tallies at par and £200,000 in bank notes. This new stock was said to be "engrafted". The government promised not only to pay the Bank interest on the tallies subscribed but to redeem them over a period of years. The "engrafted" stock was then cancelled simultaneously with the redemption.[11]

Tally sticks feature in the design of the entrance gates to The National Archives at Kew.

See also


  1. ^ Harper, Douglas. "tally". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  2. ^ A very brief history of pure mathematics: The Ishango Bone Archived 21 July 2008 at the Wayback Machine University of Western Australia School of Mathematics – accessed January 2007.
  3. ^ *Graham Flegg, Numbers: their history and meaning, Courier Dover Publications, 2002 ISBN 978-0-486-42165-0, pp. 41–42.
  4. ^ Beckmann, Petr (1971). A History of π (PI). Boulder, Colorado: The Golem Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-911762-12-9.
  5. ^ Code civil, Article 1333, unaltered since 1804: "Les tailles corrélatives à leurs échantillons font foi entre les personnes qui sont dans l'usage de constater ainsi les fournitures qu'elles font ou reçoivent en détail." Retrieved 13 January 2013.
  6. ^ "nick-stick". Oxford English Dictionary (3 ed.). 2003.
  7. ^ Shenton, Caroline (2012). "Chapter 1: Thursday 16 October 1834, 6am: Mr Hume's Motion for a New House". The Day Parliament Burned Down. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199646708.
  8. ^ a b "50 Things That Made the Modern Economy". BBC Radio. BBC. Retrieved 30 March 2018.
  9. ^ Charles Dickens, "Administrative Reform" (June 27, 1855) Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, Speeches literary and social by Charles Dickens (1870) pp.133–4.
  10. ^ Clanchy, Michael (1979). From Memory to Written Record (3 ed.). Oxford, England: Blackwell. p. 125. ISBN 9780631168577.
  11. ^ Carswell, John (1993). The South Sea Bubble (Revised ed.). England: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-86299-918-6.


  • Maddox, Thomas, ed. (1711). The History and Antiquities of the Exchequer of the Kings of England, in two periods: To wit, from the Norman Conquest, to the End of the Reign of K. John; and from the End of the Reign of K. John, to the End of the Reign of K. Edward II: Taken from Records. London.
  • Baxter, T. W. (1989). "Early Accounting, The Tally and the Checkerboard". The Accounting Historians Journal. 16: 43–83.
  • Jenkinson, (Sir) Hilary (1924). "Medieval Tallies, Public and Private". Archaeologia. 74: 280–351, 8 Plates.
  • Carswell, John (1993). The South Sea Bubble (Revised ed.). England: Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd. p. 24. ISBN 978-0-86299-918-6.

Further reading

External links

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Celt (tool)

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A cist ( or ; also kist ;

from Greek: κίστη or Germanic Kiste) is a small stone-built coffin-like box or ossuary used to hold the bodies of the dead. Examples can be found across Europe and in the Middle East.

A cist may have been associated with other monuments, perhaps under a cairn or long barrow. Several cists are sometimes found close together within the same cairn or barrow. Often ornaments have been found within an excavated cist, indicating the wealth or prominence of the interred individual.

This old word is preserved in the Swedish language, where "kista" is the word for a funerary coffin.

Cumberland point

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Dolní Věstonice (archaeology)

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Folsom point

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Grattoir de côté

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Grinding slab

In archaeology, a grinding slab is a ground stone artifact generally used to grind plant materials into usable size, though some slabs were used to shape other ground stone artifacts. Some grinding stones are portable; others are not and, in fact, may be part of a stone outcropping.

Grinding slabs used for plant processing typically acted as a coarse surface against which plant materials were ground using a portable hand stone, or mano ("hand" in Spanish). Variant grinding slabs are referred to as metates or querns, and have a ground-out bowl. Like all ground stone artifacts, grinding slabs are made of large-grained materials such as granite, basalt, or similar tool stones.

Ishango bone

The Ishango bone is a bone tool, dated to the Upper Paleolithic era. It is a dark brown length of bone, the fibula of a baboon, with a sharp piece of quartz affixed to one end, perhaps for engraving. It was first thought to be a tally stick, as it has a series of what has been interpreted as tally marks carved in three columns running the length of the tool, though it has also been suggested that the scratches might have been to create a better grip on the handle or for some other non-mathematical reason.The Ishango bone was found in 1960 by Belgian Jean de Heinzelin de Braucourt while exploring what was then the Belgian Congo. It was discovered in the area of Ishango near the Semliki River. Lake Edward empties into the Semliki which forms part of the headwaters of the Nile River (now on the border between modern-day Uganda and D.R. Congo). The bone was found among the remains of a small community that fished and gathered in this area of Africa. The settlement had been buried in a volcanic eruption.The artifact was first estimated to have originated between 9,000 BC and 6,500 BC.

However, the dating of the site where it was discovered was re-evaluated, and it is now believed to be more than 20,000 years old (between 18,000 BC and 20,000 BC).The Ishango bone is on permanent exhibition at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels, Belgium.

Lamoka projectile point

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List of numeral system topics

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Plano point

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They are bifacially worked and have been divided into numerous sub-groups based on variations in size, shape and function including Alberta points, Cody points, Frederick points, Eden points and Scottsbluff points. Plano points do not include the hollowing or 'fluting' found in Clovis and Folsom points.


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Tool stone

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or stones used as the raw material for tools.Generally speaking, tools that require a sharp edge are made using cryptocrystalline materials that fracture in an easily controlled conchoidal manner.

Cryptocrystalline tool stones include flint and chert, which are fine-grained sedimentary materials; rhyolite and felsite, which are igneous flowstones; and obsidian, a form of natural glass created by igneous processes. These materials fracture in a predictable fashion, and are easily resharpened. For more information on this subject, see lithic reduction.

Large-grained materials, such as basalt, granite, and sandstone, may also be used as tool stones, but for a very different purpose: they are ideal for ground stone artifacts. Whereas cryptocrystalline materials are most useful for killing and processing animals, large-grained materials are usually used for processing plant matter. Their rough faces often make excellent surfaces for grinding plant seeds. With much effort, some large-grained stones may be ground down into awls, adzes, and axes.


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Yubetsu technique

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The name comes from the Yūbetsu River (湧別川, Yubetsugawa), on the right bank of which the Shirataki (白滝遺跡, Shirataki Iseki) Palaeolithic sites were discovered.

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This technique was also used from Mongolia to Kamchatka Peninsula during the later Pleistocene.

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