Mesopotamia

Where Did Ancient Slaves Come From?

a phoot of a cat walking determinedly across an asphalt street
This Tirolean cat has a place to get to and does not care what tries to get in its way, like me when I get a research burr in my blanket! Photo by Sean Manning, May 2020

A retired economist in another country wants to know how we know that many ancient slaves were prisoners of war, kidnap victims, or the children of slaves. Ok! Readers who don’t want to hear about slavery and child abandonment might want to skip this one.

So in the Ur III period around 2000 BCE we see massive numbers of people being rounded up and deported into labour camps near Ur. Some were starved to death so their supervisors could sell their rations, and others seem to have been blinded to stop them running away (they could still haul water and do other simple tasks). A bit later we have contracts where parents sell their children to someone willing to feed them during sieges or famines. Moving on to the 8th and 7th century BCE, the archive from Nippur (Oriental Institute Publication 114) and the Iliad describe people being captured by raiders and bandits and either ransomed or enslaved. A little later we see massive numbers of captives being dedicated to the gods in Babylonia, where they would work for the rest of their lives for the temple (although it is worth noting that these širāku had what we would call human rights other than the right to move freely and choose their employer- there were even worse statuses to be placed in). We also see that people with unfree status were tattooed or branded so they could be identified if they ran away. Later stories about Solon around 600 BCE describe how farmers in Attica fell into debt and were forced to sell themselves and their lands, possibly share-cropping for one sixth of the produce (the ἑκτημόριοι “sixth-parters”).

Starting with the first surviving Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus at the end of the 5th century BCE, we have account after account of prisoners of war and the populations of captured cities being sold into captivity or executed by Greek cities or Persian kings. We also know that one of the biggest employers of slaves near Athens was the silver mines, and mine slaves seem to have had a very short life expectancy. Early Greek and Latin had words for “home-born slave” and “bought slave” and slave-holders told each other that the first kind was best. In Egypt under the Ptolemies, letters and slave names indicate that many slaves were abandoned children left out with the trash: whoever took them in and fed them owned them. There is an Akkadian phrase which may mean something similar: where Greeks said that these foundlings came “from the dungheap” (ἀπὸ κοπρίας), Babylonians seem to say they came “from the dog’s mouth” (ie. they were about to be eaten by stray dogs: ša pī kalbi). The idea that if someone was going to die and you save them, you can do what you like with them is very common in different cultures because it let masters tell themselves that whatever they did was not as bad as killing.

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Too Many People for the Land, or Too Much Land for the King?

Herodotus’ Cyrus (9.122.3) said that soft lands birth softies. I don’t think he was thinking of Tirol! Looking west at the Alps south of Innsbruck, September 2019.

A very popular story today explains that when people learn agriculture, they quickly breed to fill the landscape and got hungrier and hungrier until a war or a plague came. In this view, peasant life was a zero-sum game and shaped by the scarcity of land and the ability of those who claimed it to squeeze resources from those who worked it: there just was not enough land for everyone to have enough to eat, and if a village cleared woods or turned hillsides into rice paddies and harvested four bushels where they used to harvest three, before too long there would be four villagers where there used to be three and they would all be hungry again. This has been strengthened by archaeologists studying the first farmers and people working in poor countries since 1945, but the core idea goes back to the Reverend Thomas Malthus in 1834 and to early population historians who saw that every 200 years the population of England was high and wages were low until disaster drastically reduced the population and a period of low population and high wages began. This story is a good match for part of the historical record, but people who look at other parts tell other stories.

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Cosmic Horror

Before speaking of something inauspicious, its always wise to invoke the protection of a lamassu. This one has accepted the change from guarding a palace to guarding a museum, so I’m sure he won’t mind guarding a blogger. (British Museum, ME 118872, photo used with permission) As a layman it often... Continue reading: Cosmic Horror

A Weather Report from 651 BCE

Photo of a cloudy grey sky over dark hills with a perfectly square cloud in front of the others
A cloud like this would definitely belong in an astronomical diary (taken 11 October 2014 on the Universitätsbrucke in Innsbruck)

… thunder … The 5th, Mercury’s first appearance in the east in Pisces … towards the south … It rained slowly. The 12th, a halo … The river level rose … The troops of Babylonia fought against the troops of Assyria; the troops … The 13th, the river level rose a little. The 14th, a cloud bank lay to the right of the sun. Night of the 15th, overcast. Three ra[inbows], one in the west, one between north and west, and one in the north, were seen. Rain, lightning, thunder, … clouds. The 15th, one god was seen with the other. Gusty south wind, haze crossed the face of the sky. Night of the 16th, the moon was surrounded by a large halo. The 16th, the sun was surrounded by a halo. The 18th, the sun was surrounded by a … halo; the south wind blew. The 19th, Venus stood in the region of Aries, 10 fingers behind Mars; the moon was surrounded by a halo, and α Scorpii stood in it. The 20th, Mars was 1 finger to the left of the front of Aries; it came close. The moon was surrounded by a halo, Jupiter stood in it. The south wind blew. The 27th, a rainbow whose brightness was very great stretched in the east. … in Hiritu in the province of Sippar the troops of Babylonia and Assyria fou[ght with each] other, and the troops of Babylonia withdrew and were heavily defeated. … [The no]rth wind blew. The 28th, a little rain. In the afternoon, a very red rainbow stretched in the east.

Sachs and Hunger, Astronomical Diaries and Related Texts from Babylonia, Volume I (Vienna, 1988) No. -651. All lacunae marked with /…/ are gaps in the tablet; all square brackets indicate damaged signs which could be reconstructed from context.
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Learning Sumerian is Hard

A new term is beginning in Austria, and that seems as good a time as any to talk about some of the reasons why I don’t have much time for blogging. Since September I have been learning Sumerian. I could speak about the controversies about Sumerian grammar, or the difficulties of the script, but in this post I will try to talk about the intersection of both.


I have tried to write this post in plain English while following the format which is traditional in historical linguistics (such as writing * before an expression which is ungrammatical, misspelled, or hypothetical). I have also converted the special characters used in transcribing Sumerian such as š and ğ into their Latin equivalents (/sh/ as in “ship” and /ng/ as in “running”). I do not know if I have succeeded, but I hope that this post is at least understandable to people without a background in historical linguistics.

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Technologies of recordkeeping in Mesopotamian history

Although this is the end of term in Austria, I made time to hear a very exciting talk by Dr. Jens Høyrup of Copenhagen. What was billed as an overview of mathematical and scribal culture turned into a survey of Mesopotamian history from the Agricultural Revolution to the Neo-Assyrian Empire as seen through the lens of the technology of numbers. Høyrup has some provocative views, including the idea that Sumerian is descended from a creole. He also had a good overview of the transition from counting tokens to impressions of tokens to sketches of tokens to cuneiform writing. The first stage of this transition does not seem to have soaked the popular literature, and I will try to find and link a good article on it one of these days. (A famous book is How Writing Came About by Dr. Denise Schmandt-Besserat of Texas).
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