MESOPOTAMIAN ECONOMICS, MONEY, LABOR
Accounting clay envelope Mesopotamia was the first place where crop surpluses were produced to such a degree that enough labor was freed that it could be harnessed to build cities and monuments, produce art and crafts and support merchants, temples and monarchs.
The Sumerian used the world’s first writing to record economic transactions and participate in a trade network that extended over thousands of miles. The Babylonians are credited with expanding commerce and developing an early banking system.
Most of the early writing was used to make lists of commodities. The writing system is believed to have developed in response to an increasingly complex society in which records needed to be kept on taxes, rations, agricultural products and tributes to keep society running smoothly.
The oldest examples of Sumerian writing were bills of sales that recorded transactions between a buyer and seller. When a trader sold ten head of cattle he included a clay tablet that had a symbol for the number ten and a pictograph symbol of cattle.
The Mesopotamians could also be described as the worlds first great accountants. They recorded everything that was consumed in the temples on clay tablets and placed them in the temple archives. Many of the tablets recovered were lists of items like this. Royal seals were affixed to products.
See Trade Below
Books: Sumerian Dictionary of the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania edited by Ake W. Sjoberg (University of Pennsylvania, 1984); The Sumerians, Their History, Culture and Character by Samuel Noah Kramer (University of Chicago Press, 1963); The Ancient Near East By William Hallo and William Kelly Simpson (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1971); Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture by William H. Stiebing Jr. Experts and Sources: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; John Russell, an art historian at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston; Irene Winter, professor of art history at Harvard; McGuire Gibson of Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago; Jeremy Black, Oriental Institute at Oxford University; Piotr Michalowski, University of Michigan.
Websites and Resources: Ancient History Encyclopedia ancient.eu.com/Mesopotamia ; Mesopotamia University of Chicago site mesopotamia.lib.uchicago.edu ; British Museum mesopotamia.co.uk ; Interent Ancient History Sourcebook fordham.edu/halsall/ancient ; Louvre louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_periode.jsp ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah ; University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology penn.museum/sites/iraq ; Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago uchicago.edu/museum/highlights/meso ; Iraq Museum Database oi.uchicago.edu/OI/IRAQ/dbfiles/Iraqdatabasehome ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia
Money in Mesopotamia
Economic tablet from Susa Silver rings were used in Mesopotamia and Egypt as currency about 2000 years before the first coins were struck. Some archaeologists suggest that money was used by wealthy citizens of Mesopotamia as early as 2,500 B.C., or perhaps a few hundred years earlier. [Source: Heather Pringle, Discover, October 1998]
Historian Marvin Powell of Northern Illinois in De Kalb told Discover, "Silver in Mesopotamia functions like our money today. It’s a means of exchange. People use it for storage of wealth, and the use it for defining value."
The difference between the silver rings used in Mesopotamia and earliest coins first produced in Lydia in Anatolia in the 7th century B.C. was that the Lydian coins had the stamp of the Lydian king and thus were guaranteed by an authoritative source to have a fixed value. Without the stamp of the king, people were reluctant to take the money at face value from a stranger.
Archaeologists have had a difficult time sorting out information on ancient money because, unlike pottery or utensils, found in abundant supply at archeological sites, they didn't thrown them out.
Development of Proto Money
Clay accounting tokens The earliest form of trade was barter. The earliest known proto-money are clay token excavated from the floors of villages houses and city temples in the Near East. The tokens served as counters and perhaps as promissory notes used before writing was developed. The tokens came in different sizes and shapes.
Early Mesopotamians who lived in the Fertile Crescent before the rise of the first cities employed five token types that represented different amounts of the three main traded goods: grain, human labor and livestock such as goats and sheep.
Clay tokens, described by some scholars as the world's first money, found in Susa, Iran have been dated to 3300 B.C. One was equivalent to one sheep. Others represented a jar of oil, a measure of metal, a measure of honey, and different garments.
In the Mesopotamian cities, there were 16 main types of tokens and dozens of sub categories for things like honey, trussed duck, sheep's milk, rope, garments, bread, textiles, furniture, mats, beds, perfume and metals.
Development of Money Idea and the Idea Behind it
Receipt for clothes Thomas Wyrick, an economist at Southwestern Missouri State University told Discover, "If there were a thousand different goods being traded up and down the street, people could set the price in a thousand different ways because in a barter economy each good is priced in terms of other goods. So one pair of sandals equals ten dates, equals one quart of wheat, equals two quarts of bitumen, and so on."
"Which is the best price? It's so complex that people don't know if they are getting a good deal. For the first time in history, we've got a large number of goods. And for the first time, we have so many prices that it overwhelms the human mind. People needed some standard way of stating value."
In Mesopotamia, silver became the standard of value sometime between 3100 B.C. and 2500 B.C. along with barley. Silver was used because it was a prized decorative material, it was portable and the supply of it was relatively constant and predictable from year to year.
Sometime before 2500 B.C. a shekel of silver became the standard currency. Tablets listed the price of timber and grains in shekels of silver. A shekel was equal to about one third of an ounce, or little more than three pennies in terms of weight. One month of labor was worth 1 shekel. A liter of barely sold for 3/100ths of shekel. A slave sold for between 10 and 20 shekels.
No long after shekels appeared as a means of exchange, kings began levying fines in shekels as a punishment. Around 2000 B.C., in the city of Eshnunna, a man who bit another man's nose was fined 60 shekels. A man who slapped another man in the face had to pay up 20 shekels.
Ring Money in Mesopotamia
In the early days of shekels, people carried pieces of metal in bags and amounts were measured out on scales with stones as countermeasures on the other side. Between 2800 B.C. and 2500 B.C., pieces of silver were caste a standard weight, usually in the form of rings or coils called har on tablets. These rings, worth between 1 and 60 shekels, were used primarily by the rich to make big purchases. They came in a number of different forms: large ones with triangular ridges, thin coils.
A 3,700-year-old tablet from the Euphrates River town of Sippar recorded a bill of sale of a woman who bought some land with a silver ring, worth the equivalent of 60 months wages for an ordinary worker, that she received from her parents.
To pay their bills ordinary people used less valuable money made of tin, copper or bronze. Barley was also used as currency. The advantage with it was that small weighing errors made little difference and it was difficult to cheat someone.
The use of money made trade easier between city-states and kingdoms and well as between Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine.
Problems with Money
Daily salary in Ur The main problem with silver is that it was so valuable that weighing errors or impure silver should translate to a large amount of lost value. Some people tried to purposely cheat others by adding other metals into gold or silver or even substituting look-a-like metals.
Fraud and cheating were so prevalent in the ancient world that there are eight passages in the Old Testament that forbid tampering with scales or substituting lighter for heavier stones.
People often fell into debt—a conclusion based on numerous tablet letters describing people in various kinds of trouble for falling into debt. Many debtors became slaves. The situation got so out of hand in Babylon that King Hammurabi decreed that no one could be enslaved for more than three years for debt. Other cities, with residents racked by debt, issued moratoriums on all outstanding bills.
Employment contract from Ur As agriculture became more advanced, surpluses were generated, freeing farmers to perform other jobs. Over time former farmers could earn enough to specialize in certain tasks and become what would qualify as craftsmen.
Tablets listed scores of professions. Trades during Mesopotamian times included tradesmen, butchers, stonemasons, water carriers, fishermen, estate workers, farmers, tanners, weavers, boatbuilders, furniture makers, bakers, silversmiths, metal workers, pottery makers, beer brewers, bread makers, leatherworkers, spinners, weavers, clothes makers, tool and weapons makers, jewelers, woodworkers and people in charge of preparing sacrifices and maintaining buildings.
Workers were often paid with barley. Under the Cod of Hammurabi, maximum prices and minimum wages were fixed by decree and the terms for apprenticeships were defined.
There were also many civil servants. One of the highest positions was the scribe, who worked closely with the king and the bureaucracy, recording events and tallying up commodities.
Industry, Resources and Business in Mesopotamia
Transfer of cattle in Ur Organized production of handcrafted good was first developed in Mesopotamia. The Sumerians produced manufactured goods. The weaving of wool by thousands of workers is regarded as the for large-scale industry.
The Sumerians a developed sense of ownership and private property. It seems like many business transactions were recorded and the minutest amounts and smallest quantities were listed. Contracts were sealed with cylinder seals that were rolled over clay to produce a relief image.
There wasn't much in Ur and other cities in Mesopotamia except water from the Euphrates River and mud brick made from the dry earth. Prized materials such as gold, silver, lapis lazuli, agate, carnelian all were imported.
See Naptu, Oil
Trade in Mesopotamia
Assyrian booty in Nineveh Large scale trade was pioneered in Mesopotamia. Both luxury goods and raw materials circulated within Mesopotamia and were brought in from the outside as far away as India, Africa and Greece.
Mesopotamia was where some of the first great trade routes were established. "Control of the Euphrates," an Italian archaeologist Paolo Matthiae told National Geographic, "meant control over the strategic traffic in metals from Anatolia and in wood from the Syrian forests near the Mediterranean, both natural resources essential to Mesopotamian economic life."
The only goods available in abundance in Mesopotamia were mud, clay, reeds, palm, fish, and grain. To obtain other goods Mesopotamians needed to trade. Mesopotamians developed large scale trade. Ships brought in goods from distant lands. Labor and grain were exported. Metals were brought in overland routes and paid for with wool and grains. Goods were moved in jars and clay pots. Seals identified who they belonged to.
The Sumerians established trade links with cultures in Anatolia, Syria, Persia and the Indus Valley. Similarities between pottery in Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley indicate that trade probably occurred between the two regions. During the reign of the pharaoh Pepi I (2332 to 2283 B.C.) Egypt traded with Mesopotamian cities as far north as Ebla in Syria near the border of present-day Turkey.
The Sumerians traded for gold and silver from Indus Valley, Egypt, Nubia and Turkey; ivory from Africa and the Indus Valley; agate, carnelian, wood from Iran; obsidian and copper from Turkey; diorite, silver and copper from Oman and coast of Arabian Sea; carved beads from the Indus valley; translucent stone from Oran and Turkmenistan; seashell from the Gulf of Oman. Raw blocks of lapis lazuli are thought to have been brought from Afghanistan by donkey and on foot. Tin may have come from as far away as Malaysia but most likely came from Turkey or Europe.
weight Many goods that traveled through the Persian Gulf went through the island of Bahrain. There was an early Bronze Age trade network between Mesopotamia, Dilmun (Bahrain), Elam (southwestern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan) and the Indus Valley. Ivory combs, carnelian belts and beads were carried by ship to Dilmun in Bahrain where buyers from Ur snapped them up the Euphrates and carried them to Mesopotamia.
See Dillum Magan people, History
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine and New York Times articles, especially Merle Severy, National Geographic, May 1991 and Marion Steinmann, Smithsonian, December 1988. Also from the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011