A post from Shady Characters

Shady Characters advent calendar 2023: the tally stick

This is the first in a series of twelve posts on 2023 Advent calendar. Continue to PART 2 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

Tally sticks are our oldest known mathematical artefacts. The oldest of all, the “Lebombo Bone” from South Africa, is more than forty thousand years old.1 The principle behind the tally stick is simple: take a stick, carve a notch or a mark in it to add 1 to some ongoing count, and you have a portable, permanent record of that cumulative value.2

A wooden stick with notches carved along its top edge, writing inscribed on its front face, and the back face split off to form a separate piece.
A medieval English tally stick, split to record a debt and the debtor. It relates to a debt owed to the dean of Preston Candover in Hampshire of a sum of £2 13s 4d. (CC BY-SA 2.0 image courtesy of Hampshire Museums.)

But later, and in Britain especially, tally sticks took on another use: they were used to record debts. A stick of willow was inscribed with the name of the debtor and scored to record the amount. It was then split along its length, so that the two halves matched only each other. The half with the name of the debtor was kept by the creditor, and the other half was kept by the debtor. The “stock” — the part that identified the debtor and amount of their debt — became a form of currency, which could be exchanged in lieu of money. The new owner of the stock could then, at any time, demand settlement of the debt or trade it on to yet another owner.3

The government treasury, or Exchequer, used tally sticks to record debts owed to the state until as late as 1826, when the practice was replaced by written ledgers. Eight years later, when the last two cartloads of stocks were to be burned, janitors at the Houses of Parliament set about doing so in a furnace in the building’s basement — leading to a fire that very nearly destroyed the entire parliamentary estate.4

From recording prehistoric counts to managing the finances of the British state and immolating its parliament, the simple tally stick lived an eventful life.

D’Errico, Francesco, Lucinda Backwell, Paola Villa, Ilaria Degano, Jeannette J. Lucejko, Marion K. Bamford, Thomas F. G. Higham, Maria Perla Colombini, and Peter B. Beaumont. “Early Evidence of San Material Culture Represented by Organic Artifacts from Border Cave, South Africa”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, no. 33 (August 14, 2012): 13214-13219. https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1204213109.


Menninger, Karl. Number words and number symbols: a cultural history of numbers. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969.


Harford, Tim. “What tally sticks tell us about how money works”. BBC News, sec. Business.


“Tally Sticks”. UK Parliament. Accessed December 1, 2023.


4 comments on “Shady Characters advent calendar 2023: the tally stick

  1. Comment posted by Nancy Gilmartin on

    Thank you!

  2. Comment posted by Steve Minniear on

    Tally Ho Ho Ho! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the urge.)

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