I was sitting in a quiet office in the Louvre Museum in Paris, a clay tablet in my hand, using a magnifying glass to make out words that had been inscribed on it in small, careful, wedge-shaped signs known as cuneiform. It looked diminutive in my palm, just 38.5 mm (1.5 inches) wide and 33 mm (1.3 inches) tall. On it, an ancient scribe had written a list of a dozen names. What lay behind this little document? Who were the men listed? When and how did they live? More than 3,700 years ago, when the scribe used his sharp stylus to press the names into the clay, listing goods distributed to each person, these men knew one another and worked together. Many of them must have had wives and families and professions. What more could I learn about their world?
At that point, I was just beginning my graduate research in ancient Middle Eastern history, but I knew I was not the first person to read this tablet. Decades before, in 1923, a French scholar named François Thureau-Dangin had travelled to eastern Syria, searching for the site of an ancient city called Terqa, and he had been given this tablet, along with a handful of others, and had brought them back to the Louvre. He had also attempted a short excavation of the site that proved to be Terqa, now a village on the Euphrates River called Tell Ashara, but he had no luck in his goal of finding more clay documents. Thureau-Dangin subsequently read, analysed and published the few tablets he had acquired, noting their distinctive features and likening them to others that were already known from the antiquities market. I had read and re-read his article many times before going to Paris to look at the tablets for myself.
Doing research in history often feels like having a conversation with people who lived long ago, and, alone in that office at the Louvre, I was deep in an imagined dialogue with Thureau-Dangin about his interpretations. It made no difference that he died long before I was born; we shared a fascination with the history of Terqa. There with us, too, was the anonymous scribe who wrote the tablet so many thousands of years before, along with the scribes who inscribed the other tablets that Thureau-Dangin had acquired. The documents seemed to have belonged to an ancient private archive; most of them referred to a man named Gimil-Ninkarrak. Oddly, though, this list I was reading did not.
Looking at the tablet more closely, however, I felt a sudden jolt of recognition. Beneath and around the cuneiform names I could make out the impressions of a seal that had been rolled across the clay, and it was one that I recognised. The seal had belonged to none other than Gimil-Ninkarrak. So this was why the tablet had been among the documents. Thureau-Dangin had, understandably, missed this. Two much clearer impressions of the seal were found long after Thureau-Dangin’s 1944 death, during more recent excavations at Terqa, and it was absolutely recognisable. Clearly Gimil-Ninkarrak had been present (and probably in a position of authority) for the creation of the list I held in my hand; he had rolled his seal on it as a sign of its official status.
What could the scribes have told us about Gimil-Ninkarrak and his world? What was I getting wrong in my interpretation? My ‘conversation’ eventually expanded to include the contributions of many other scholars and many other ancient scribes; in the years since that visit to the Louvre, other little pieces of the puzzle of life in Terqa in the late 18th century BCE have been falling into place.
I’ve even been able to reconstruct a microhistory of Gimil-Ninkarrak and his community. A microhistory is more focused than a biography; it examines a period during the life of a person (usually someone who was not particularly eminent), in order to understand some aspect of that person’s world. Often microhistories are based on documents that survived accidentally; documents that had meaning and importance at the time but are largely free of bluster and propaganda, not having been written with a future audience in mind. Through them we can almost be flies on the wall; eavesdropping on people in the past who would never have guessed that they would be remembered. Clay tablets written in cuneiform are perfectly suited to this approach to history, in part because they survive very well in the ground, so what survives wasn’t curated for us in ancient times. All kinds of documents are preserved. It also helps that hundreds of ancient individuals kept archives of personal documents in their homes. When archaeologists excavate ancient communities, the tablets are often found lying on the floors, right where they had been abandoned.
Thureau-Dangin searched for the rest of Gimil-Ninkarrak’s archive at Terqa in 1923, but he had no luck. Incredibly, though, the tablets he sought were eventually found. In the late 1970s, Giorgio Buccellati, an archaeologist and historian at the University of California, Los Angeles, began formal excavations at Terqa, heading an international team. In 1984 and 2011, Olivier Rouault, the epigrapher for the excavation, published the documents recovered during those seasons, and later became the director of the excavations there. As a result of their efforts, we now know of 14 tablets that mention Gimil-Ninkarrak, many of them found in what was apparently his house.
They show that Gimil-Ninkarrak was a fascinating character, a prominent man in his community, one who had a connection to the local king, Kashtiliashu, but whose documents also provide glimpses into the lives of people who were much less prosperous and who suffered great financial and personal hardship, including a girl (to whom we shall return) named Guatum.
The late 18th century BCE, when the Gimil-Ninkarrak tablets were produced, was more than 2,300 years before the birth of Muhammad, 1,200 years, even, before the beginning of the Roman Republic. But urban culture was already about 1,800 years old in the Middle East. And because people, rightly, always consider their own era modern, Gimil-Ninkarrak would not have thought of his culture as primitive or ancient.
The global population at the time was only a tiny fraction of its current size, but people already lived on every continent except Antarctica. They spoke innumerable languages, and sustained themselves in many ways, including through agriculture, foraging, herding, fishing and trading. Gimil-Ninkarrak lived in what was then one of the most urban and densely populated areas in the world: the region that came to be known as Mesopotamia (modern Iraq and Syria), where cities and kingdoms lay in the valley of the great Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The major cities were grand; with populations in the tens of thousands, they boasted sprawling palaces, towering city walls, and temples on high platforms. The sizable city of Terqa was home to the great god of the region, a grain deity named Dagan.
During Gimil-Ninkarrak’s lifetime, the major power in Mesopotamia was a kingdom called Babylon. You may be familiar with Babylon from the Bible, when Nebuchadnezzar II was king, but that story would not unfold for more than 1,100 years. Gimil-Ninkarrak’s era was what we call the Old Babylonian period, when the city of Babylon was just beginning its almost 1,500-year domination of what is now Iraq. The Old Babylonian empire had been forged by a king named Hammurabi, and Gimil-Ninkarrak may have been born around the end of Hammurabi’s reign. Terqa had its own line of kings, but they seem to have been in some way beholden to Babylon, which had a strong influence there.
The Euphrates River, which flowed past the city, wide and murky, probably looked much the same in the 18th century BCE as it does now. The green fields of barley around the city would have been similar, too – divided into long narrow rectangles, flanked by canals, extending across the flat river valley. The sun-browned hills of the steppe where sheep and goats grazed were visible in the distance then, as now.
Fortunately, the locals discarded their household records right alongside their broken storage pots
Archaeologists have not yet found the remains of the temple of Dagan, but they have uncovered many areas of the ancient city that are just as interesting – and one of these is a neighbourhood that the archaeologists called ‘Area C’. It was here that they uncovered the tablets from the archive of Gimil-Ninkarrak. The excavated section consists of the foundations and walls of three or four ancient houses along a short stretch of narrow road, ending in a public square and a small shrine to a goddess of healing named Ninkarrak. I remember standing in that road soon after I arrived at Terqa, thinking of the people who had walked it so many thousands of years ago, and wondering about their lives: what were their names? How did they spend their days? What difficulties did they face?
If the people of the region had not written on clay, I would have found few answers to my questions. We would know only what can be concluded from the artefacts and buildings. But, fortunately, the scribes at Terqa did write on clay, and the local men and women in this community discarded their household records right alongside their broken storage pots. Their tablets provide us with their names, along with plenty of details about their relationships, professions and institutions. In the case of Terqa, we know more about these individuals than we know about the kings who ruled their region.
More than 100 tablets from Terqa have been published, and most seem to have been thrown away or simply forgotten by their owners, scattered (sometimes already in fragments) on the dirt floors, and covered up by fallen bricks, dirt, and later occupation levels. The tablets included nothing intended to impress; there were no royal inscriptions or literary works. Their contents were much more prosaic: personal letters, contracts, school exercises, lists of names of people who worked together – just the same kinds of things you might find among someone’s papers today.
The documents are full of names. Initially when I began research on these tablets, the names were all unfamiliar, all something of a blur, but the more I studied them, the more the community came to life. Hundreds of men, and a few women, are mentioned, each person usually identified by profession or by the name of their father. Many of the same people showed up in the documents over and over. They served as witnesses to one another’s contracts, they were listed as owners of adjoining fields and houses, they wrote one another letters, and they bought and sold property from one another. I analysed where the names occurred in the texts in order to reconstruct their social networks – who appeared on the same witness lists together? Who lived next door to one another? How did brothers interact? I came to realise that the neighbourhood was home to many small landowners, and that it was dominated by five families. I was even able to reconstruct partial family trees for each of them.
These texts are mundane, in a way, but also astonishing, because they provide a bright window into the lives of the people who lived in and around ‘Area C’. That’s our name for it anyway, but a contract for the sale of a house tells us that the public square where this house was located was called the ‘rebit matim’ or Square of the Land.
Gimil-Ninkarrak stands out among the community of the rebit matim district; he was a prominent man who may have been closely involved with the shrine to Ninkarrak. To judge from the spots where the tablets were found that mention him, he seems to have lived in a house right next door to the shrine. Like several of his neighbours, Gimil-Ninkarrak owned at least one field – the sale was recorded in a fragmentary contract. The earliest dated text mentioning him is, in fact, another contract recording the sale of a field, though he was not the buyer or seller in this one; his name appears in the witness list.
Records of land and house transactions were often kept for a long time, centuries sometimes, in order to prove ownership, just in case anyone contested them. Occasionally they’re found in jars, kept carefully together. Two such jars of land contracts were found in a different area at Terqa. If someone did dispute a sale, the litigants would need to find the relevant contract, gather some of the original witnesses who had been named on the tablet, and go to court. If it turned out that someone had reneged on the contract’s terms, the listed punishment was harsh – in most cases, he would have to pay 10 lbs of silver as a fine to the palace, and have hot asphalt smeared on his head. Court cases from other regions suggest that such severe penalties were rarely ever imposed, but they presumably acted as a pretty strong deterrent: 10 lbs of silver was much more than someone would earn in a lifetime, in almost any profession.
At one point, Gimil-Ninkarrak probably worked for the local king, Kashtiliashu. We know very little about this king or his land, or how many people he ruled, or how far his realm extended. In fact, we don’t even know what his kingdom was called, because no royal inscriptions or documents from his court have been found. Later, the kingdom in this region was named Hana, and this may already have been the case, but no evidence has yet been found to prove it. Kashtiliashu might even have been foreign to the region (his name isn’t local). For decades, scholars have come up with theories about king Kashtiliashu – that he was an early member of a royal family that later took over in Babylon, for example – but I remain unconvinced. Only a handful of references to him survive and there just isn’t enough evidence yet to conclude much about him. That said, though, it does seem likely that his palace was at Terqa, the biggest city in the region.
To judge from his cylinder seal, Gimil-Ninkarrak served the king as one of his personal barbers.
We know of the king’s connection to Gimil-Ninkarrak because Gimil-Ninkarrak owned a beautiful cylinder seal with an inscription that describes him as the servant of Kashtiliashu. Anyone less important than the king – that is, everyone in the kingdom – was considered to be subservient to the king, but only people who worked directly for him could be described on their seals as servants of the king. Cylinder seals were used in much the way we use signatures; a cylinder seal rolled across a clay document indicated the involvement of the man or woman it belonged to. Gimil-Ninkarrak rolled his seal on tablets and on pieces of clay used to seal doors or pots. It’s clear from the impressions that the ends of the seal were covered by extravagant gold caps decorated with triangle designs made up of tiny gold balls, called granulation. It was probably a gift from King Kashtiliashu.
What, you may be wondering, did Gimil-Ninkarrak do for the king? Ever since the 1920s when some of his tablets were first published, we’ve known his profession: he was the ‘chief barber’. This was how he was identified in another of the tablets that he had kept – a broken half of a contract for the hire of a labourer to work in his fields, a man named Iddin-Sin. The contract notes that Gimil-Ninkarrak promised to pay Iddin-Sin a salary in barley, and guaranteed him 10 days off during the year. We know from other, similar, contracts that Iddin-Sin would have been given wool for his clothing, along with new sandals and a pot of oil, and that he was provided with an advance, paid in barley, at the time of hiring. Had Gimil-Ninkarrak failed to provide any of this, Iddin-Sin could have taken him to court, using the contract as evidence.
Why would someone with the title of ‘chief barber’ own and buy fields and hire labourers to work them? In a letter, Gimil-Ninkarrak even instructed someone to buy him some draft animals, perhaps to pull a plough or wagon. If not for his cylinder seal and his professional title, you would think from his contracts that he made his living in agriculture. But in Mesopotamia 3,700 years ago, almost everyone had a connection to agriculture. Officials received the use of land from the king as a form of salary, to be worked, not by the officials themselves, but by tenant farmers, hired labourers or entrepreneurs. Soldiers were allotted smaller plots of land that they farmed when not on campaign. So Gimil-Ninkarrak owned arable land and benefited from its harvests, while also devoting himself to his profession as chief barber.
In order to learn more about Gimil-Ninkarrak’s career, I expanded my search for documents. Many professions in this era were organised into guilds, each with an administrator to oversee its members. A barber’s guild is mentioned on a clay tablet from the nearby city of Mari where ‘the members of the barbers’ guild take their places beside the (other) craftsmen and deposit their razors before (the goddess) Ishtar’. Gimil-Ninkarrak seems to have headed the barbers’ guild in Terqa.
The razor that a barber would have used was called a naglabu in the local language of Akkadian. It was a sharp blade that was also often mentioned in association with surgery, which barbers could also perform. In another document from Mari, a letter this time, a man wrote about being taken to a barber for a pain in his foot: ‘my foot is in pain all over, and I cannot step on the ground. And they carried me to the house of the barber on a bed.’ Gimil-Ninkarrak’s role as a healer of this kind might explain the location of his house, right beside a shrine to the goddess of healing, Ninkarrak. He may even have had a role in her cult. A list of names that probably records offerings made to the goddess was found on the floor of her shrine; it featured Gimil-Ninkarrak in fourth place, after the goddess herself, the king, and one other person.
To judge from his cylinder seal, though, Gimil-Ninkarrak also served the king, perhaps as one of his personal barbers. Think of it; here was a man who regularly held a razor-sharp blade to the king’s throat. If so, Kashtiliashu must have trusted him completely. As a result, Gimil-Ninkarrak may have been asked to perform other roles – ones unrelated to the shaving and trimming of hair or to surgery – that required someone in whom the king had utter confidence. Around the same time, another chief barber had the unlikely responsibility of overseeing troops at a military fort. He worked in this capacity alongside a vizier and several military commanders. The chief barber’s title might, in the end, be misleading; it’s possible that Gimil-Ninkarrak spent more time helping to administer the local kingdom than he did chatting with clients while trimming their beards.
Guatum was sold into slavery. Gimil-Ninkarrak purchased her from her parents
Detailed study of the documents gives us a real sense of this man: he lived in an unassuming neighbourhood and owned land; he had a son and presumably a wife (though we know nothing about her); he was active in his community, and may have been the most influential man among his neighbours, overseeing the local barbers and working for the king.
But one document from his archive contains a jarring surprise.
The contract starts with the name of a girl. She was ‘Guatum, the daughter of Shamhu and Beltani’. Why was she the subject of this contract? The scribe continued: ‘Gimil-Ninkarrak, son of Arshi-ahum, bought her for her full price from Shamhu and Beltani, her father and her mother. He paid 5/6 mana of silver….’ Although nowhere in the contract is the term for ‘slave’ mentioned, Guatum was certainly being sold into slavery. Gimil-Ninkarrak purchased her from her parents.
This tablet is unusual for its time. Mesopotamian slave sale contracts in the 18th and 17th centuries BCE more often specified that slaves came from a particular distant place than that they were bought from their parents. Occasionally, a contract records that a young woman was purchased from her parents by a couple in order to become a second wife to the husband and a slave to the wife. Although polygamy was rare, such marriages were permissible in instances in which a couple was infertile, and may have occurred when the woman’s parents could not afford a dowry. But there is no mention of marriage in Guatum’s contract.
Leaving Gimil-Ninkarrak’s world of land ownership and official duties, what can we learn about poorer people in the society, people like the family of Beltani, Shamhu and Guatum? Scribes wrote about them more rarely and they generally kept no archives. What could possibly have happened in the lives of Beltani and Shamhu that brought them to the dire decision to sell their daughter? In the 18th century BCE, there seem to have been no slave markets, but female domestic slaves did work in some households. Some had been born into slavery, some brought from distant lands, some inherited, some purchased from merchants, and some even (as in this case) sold by their own parents. The sale of a child seems to have almost always represented a last, desperate action in a time of impossible financial hardship for a family. Guatum’s parents may have seen selling their daughter as the only option that would keep her fed and alive.
Generally, extended families seem to have pitched in to help when times were bad. Letters survive from this era in which adult siblings begged one another for financial assistance. This informal safety net could be lifesaving. But sometimes family members were unable to assist, as may have happened in the case of Guatum’s parents.
Just occasionally, we get a glimpse of what could drive a parent to sell their child. A group of contracts from a later period – the 13th century BCE – records a family’s catastrophic crisis that produced a similar outcome. The documents were excavated in Emar, a city on the Euphrates to the northwest of Terqa. By the time they were written, a long period of peace and prosperity was coming to an end. Emar was suffering from famine and from attacks from outside, and scribes there referred to ‘the year of famine’ or ‘the year of distress and war’.
Excavators found more than 800 cuneiform tablets and inscribed fragments in Emar. Among them are a few concerning the plight of a young couple named Ku’e and Zadamma, who were not native to the city. Perhaps, since they lived away from their original home city, they had no safety net of family members to fall back on, or perhaps their whole extended family was suffering. Several scholars have discussed the lives of these family members since the documents were found, including the Italian scholar Carlo Zaccagnini in 1994 and the Polish scholar Lena Fijałkowska in 2014. I was able to learn more about why a Mesopotamian couple might sell a child from the discoveries made by these experts and from my own analysis of the tablets.
Remarkably, a first-person statement by the mother, Ku’e, survives, in which she explained in her own words what happened to her and to her children. She said:
My husband went away; [our children] (were all) babies [and I did not have anyone] who could feed (them). Therefore I have sold my daughter Ba’la-bia to be a daughter of Anat-ummi … and (thus) I could feed the (other) small children (of mine) during the year of the famine.
It seems that Ku’e had a young daughter and twin baby sons, her husband was gone, and she was destitute. There’s no mention of slavery here, and the little girl Ba’la-bia was ‘to be a daughter’ of the woman paying for her, so perhaps their arrangement represented a form of paid adoption. Anat-ummi had offered 30 shekels of silver for the girl, which was a lot of money, and Ku’e may have envisioned a life for her daughter in which she was not enslaved, while also seeing a future for herself in which she could afford to care for her boys.
Archaeologists found the tiny clay footprints of the three oldest children that were mentioned here
It was not to be. Anat-ummi failed to pay, so little Ba’la-bia stayed with her mother. But then Ku’e’s husband returned, Ku’e gave birth to a second baby daughter, and the dire circumstances of war and famine no doubt made things worse. Perhaps they all faced starvation. The parents finally made the decision that they must have been dreading.
Another contract from Emar tells their tale:
Zadamma and Ku’e, his wife, have sold their two sons and their two daughters – Ba’la-bia, Ba’la-belu, Ishma’-Dagan, and Ba’la-ummi, a daughter at the breast – into slavery for 60 shekels of silver, the entire price, to Ba’lu-malik, the diviner.
All four of their children were sold to a rich man, one of the town’s leaders. What would their lives have been like? We have no way to know. It is safe (and tragic) to assume that they were not reunited with their parents, because the contract continued: ‘If anyone sues to reclaim the four children of Zadamma, they must give 10 other persons as compensation to Ba’lu-malik.’ Ku’e and Zadamma could never have afforded to provide those ‘10 other (enslaved) persons’ in exchange for their children.
At the end of the contract, the scribe noted ‘And now Zadamma, their father, and Ku’e, their mother, have pressed their feet into clay.’ Incredibly, archaeologists found the tiny clay footprints of the three oldest children that were mentioned here. Each was sealed and witnessed like a normal legal document, with the writing and seal impressions squeezed in around the little footprints. The misery of the parents and children seems so immediate when you look at them. The children would have had no concept, on the day when their parents helped them to step on those pieces of clay, of how their lives were about to change entirely. Perhaps a similarly tragic story lay behind the decision of Guatum’s parents to sell her to Gimil-Ninkarrak.
At Emar this practice of selling children was not normal; it was seen as extreme and required justification. The same was probably true elsewhere. Fortunately, Mesopotamian culture offered other ways for an individual or family to climb out of financial crisis. Someone struggling, and failing, to support themselves could request a loan of silver or barley from a wealthy person or temple. A loan document was found in a house across the street from Gimil-Ninkarrak’s home in Terqa. It records that the homeowner, a man named Puzurum, had borrowed 5½ shekels of silver from the temple of the god Shamash, and promised to pay back the silver and interest ‘when he is healthy and solvent’. The small tablet had been carefully split in half lengthwise, suggesting that the loan described in it had been paid off. The scribe didn’t record the interest rate, but we know from other contracts that interest rates were often prohibitively high. In his laws, King Hammurabi of Babylon had tried to regulate them. He prescribed an eye-popping interest rate of 33 per cent on barley and 20 per cent on silver. I’m sure Puzurum was very relieved to have managed to pay off his debt to the temple. He would have kept that cancelled loan tablet in his house just in case there might be any doubt.
As you might imagine, with interest rates so high, many people found themselves in a much tougher position than Puzurum. A farmer might have borrowed barley for sowing fields and then found that, for any number of reasons, the fields that year didn’t produce enough to pay back the loan with interest. If the farmer had no extended family wealthy enough to help make the payments, there was an option, but it was a stark one: they (or a family member) could become pledged or even enslaved to the creditor for a fixed time while performing labour to work off the debt. But at least debt slaves couldn’t be bought and sold and, once the agreed term ended, they were freed. This manumission took place after three years of service, according to one of Hammurabi’s laws, though the law was not necessarily followed. The kings of this era also often issued a general decree at the beginning of their reign in which they cancelled debts for the whole population, resulting in a mass release of debt slaves. This was no doubt a popular move. If Guatum’s sale resulted from her parents’ debts, perhaps she too was released on such an occasion.
The clay tablets they left behind allow us to trace their relationships and analyse their decisions
It was not just men, like Puzurum, who incurred debts. Women, too, could take out loans in their own names. Cuneiform tablets from this period show that, although women did not have equal standing with men, they could own property (and pass it down to their children), represent themselves in court, hold professions, and receive pay for their work. Few women are named in the tablets from the rebit matim neighbourhood, but a fragment of another contract from Puzurum’s house lists three women among the five preserved names of witnesses to a sale. The first was named Hamishtartum, then came Tupi, who was described as the daughter of a man named Meptu, and lastly Ahat-Kubi, daughter of Bina-Hammi. When women witnessed a contract, it was often because one (or more) of the principal parties to the transaction was also a woman. Although that section of the contract is lost in this case, probably a woman was either the buyer or the seller of the property, and her friends or relatives – Hamishtartum, Tupi, and Ahat-Kubi – had agreed to witness the transaction. They were therefore willing to go to court if the sale was challenged at all in the future.
Women and men would have mingled together when the contract was written and there’s no sign that women were prevented from participating in town events and society. The female buyer or seller was probably a member of Puzurum’s family, given that the contract was discovered in his house alongside his other documents, and, as it turns out, the witnesses Tupi and Ahat-Kubi almost certainly were acquainted with Gimil-Ninkarrak. We know this because (in a text from Gimil-Ninkarrak’s archive) Ahat-Kubi’s father and Gimil-Ninkarrak’s son were listed as owning adjoining fields, and Tupi’s brother was a witness when one of those fields was sold.
The land-owning families in the rebit matim neighbourhood at Terqa, such as those of Gimil-Ninkarrak and Puzurum, lived and worked alongside families who struggled to make ends meet. I think they would all be astounded to know that, more than 3,700 years later, the clay tablets they left behind allow us to trace their relationships and analyse their decisions, and that their lives help us to understand their long-lost culture. Cuneiform archives like these combine to show us that the ancient Middle East was populated by men, women and children who worked and socialised, loved their families and friends, struggled through adversity, and were as real and human as ourselves.