Chapter 7

Brickmakers, Litigants, and Slaves

After the Gutians had conquered Agade and helped bring an end to the Akkadian Empire, no one could claim to be king of the whole land. Even the author of the Sumerian King List, who normally valiantly maintained the fiction of a united Mesopotamia, despaired of making any sense of this era. “Who was king? Who was not king?” he wrote.1 This period was mystifying to the ancient writer and remains so to us.

Gudea of Lagash: A Peaceful King

One of the few stable kingdoms that emerged around this time was in Lagash. Its principal king—the man who dominated a brief period of renewal for Lagash—was named Gudea (c. 2144–2124 BCE). He projected a meditative calm in the many statues that he commissioned of himself.

He was portrayed in prayer, his boyish face solemn beneath his kingly cap (see Fig. 7.1). Gudea’s image is one of the best known in Mesopotamian history, not because he was especially influential, but because so many of his statues have survived. He chose to have them carved of stone, rather than cast in bronze or silver: “For this statue nobody was supposed to use silver or lapis lazuli, neither should copper or tin or bronze be a working (material). It is (exclusively) of diorite.”2 He had a good reason for doing this: “Nobody will forcibly damage (the stone).”3 He was at least somewhat correct about that; many of his statues did survive. But his sculpted head is often found without his body, and vice versa—someone did, at some point, forcibly damage them. Unlike the metal statues of other kings, however, they could not be melted down. Gudea, even when headless, is still recognizable.


Fig. 7.1 Seated diorite statue of King Gudea of Lagash in prayer, twenty-second century bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

His many inscriptions are almost as tranquil as his sculpted face and are written in elegant Sumerian. In striking contrast to the Akkadian kings who came before him, Gudea rarely mentioned military conflicts; just one sentence in a single extant inscription noted that “he defeated the cities of Anshan and Elam and brought the booty therefore to (the god) Ningirsu in his Eninnu (temple).”4 That was it for conquests. He named his years for religious activities and construction projects and filled his inscriptions with details of the buildings he commissioned.5 He traded with foreign lands to obtain materials for them: cedar from the Levant, stone slabs from the northern mountains, copper from Magan (Oman), diorite and gold from Meluhha (the Indus Valley). Many kings boasted of the temples they built, but Gudea actually depicted himself in one sculpture with the blueprint (or its ancient clay equivalent) for a temple laid out on his lap. He also prided himself on the order he brought to his land, a welcome balm after the furies of the late Akkadian period and the Gutian invasion. Like Enmetena long before him, he canceled debts and promoted kindness. “No one was lashed by the whip or hit by the goad” during his reign, he wrote, “no mother would beat her child.”6

Gudea’s wife’s sister, Enanepada, served as the en-priestess of the moon god at Ur, like Enheduana more than a century earlier.7 She resided in the Gipar palace and assumed all the rituals and responsibilities associated with her high office. It seems likely, therefore, that Lagash controlled Ur at that time, though its kings were soon to lose that great city.

Meanwhile the Gutians hadn’t all left. They seem to have taken control in much of southern Mesopotamia for several decades, until a man named Utu-hegal (2119–2112 BCE) claimed the throne in Uruk. He rallied an army of local men to drive the Gutians out, and he took over Ur as well.

Ur-Namma of Ur: Builder and Lawgiver

Utu-hegal’s successor had a significant impact on world history, and we can examine life in his realm through the eyes not just of the royal family and others in power but of some of the poor and dispossessed as well. About a decade after the death of Gudea, Ur-Namma (2112–2095 BCE) took power in the city of Ur. He seems to have been the brother of King Utu-hegal, and he had served under him as the military governor in Ur. When Utu-hegal died, Ur-Namma succeeded him, but he chose to rule from Ur rather than Uruk, founding a new dynasty there. This was more than 300 years after the time of Ur’s extravagant royal burials and about 150 years after Sargon’s daughter Enheduana had been installed as high priestess.

At the start of Ur-Namma’s reign, the kingdom was small. But Ur-Namma had caught Sargon’s empire-building bug, and over the course of his life his realm expanded to encompass much of Mesopotamia and even areas to the east in what is now Iran. Unfortunately, he provides us with few insights as to how he did it. Some scholars think he might have achieved this feat through diplomacy rather than warfare, but he didn’t brag about that either. Unlike Sargon and Naram-Sin, with their bombastic accounts of destroying walls and washing their weapons in the sea, Ur-Namma seems to have striven for peace. Perhaps he followed the lead of Gudea of Lagash. He focused, in his year-names and inscriptions, on the priestesses he appointed, the walls and temples he built, the canals he dug, and the gods he provided for. His only year named for a military victory is one in which “the land of Guti was destroyed.”8

The dynasty that Ur-Namma founded is known as the Third Dynasty of Ur, and the era that his family dominated generally goes by an abbreviation of this: it was the Ur III period. You will look in vain, however, for references to an Ur I or Ur II period. The first and second dynasties of Ur didn’t give their names to whole eras because they didn’t have a big impact on history. The conventional divisions of ancient Mesopotamian history are, in a way, like the streets of the ancient city of Ur—they grew up organically as scholars discovered new kingdoms and translated new texts, and, unfortunately, they have none of the reassuring regularity of ancient Chinese or Egyptian dynasties.

Thus far, we have discussed the Uruk, Early Dynastic, and Akkadian periods. These all fell in the Early Bronze Age, the first era of the Bronze Age, which is so called because bronze began to be used widely for tools and utensils in the Uruk period and continued to be the dominant metal until around 1200 BCE, when iron came into wider use. The Early Bronze Age in the Near East ended around 2100 BCE, that is, around the beginning of the Ur III period. The Middle Bronze Age began at that point and ended in 1550 BCE, but these distinctions represent an entirely modern creation—a way for us to structure chronology. Ancient Near Eastern historians tend to refer to the names of the periods (Uruk, Early Dynastic, Ur III, and so on) until they come to 1550 BCE, at which point they refer to the era that began then as the Late Bronze Age. The dates of the various Bronze Ages of other parts of the world are different depending on when these metal technologies came into use.

In any event, Ur-Namma was self-consciously a Sumerian king. The era that he began has sometimes been called the “Sumerian Renaissance” because in so many ways he and his successors looked backward in time for their inspiration, past the preceding Akkadian period to the Early Dynastic city-states of Sumer. They reinstated the Sumerian language for their administration and proclamations, in place of Akkadian, which had been used during Sargon’s dynasty. Artists created works in careful horizontal registers, copying the Early Dynastic style that had been used in the Standard of Ur, and in the Uruk Vase from a thousand years before. And, at least during Ur-Namma’s reign, the king of Ur was a man who was devoted to the gods, not a man who considered himself to be one.

Ur-Namma commissioned an enormous stone monument to be set up in the temple complex that was dedicated to the moon god Nanna, making a clear visual statement about what kind of king he was (see Fig. 7.2).9 The round-topped stela was originally more than 4 meters (13 feet) tall and 1.5 meters (5 feet) wide, and it weighed more than a ton.10 It was divided into five old-fashioned horizontal registers on each side. Unfortunately, when it was excavated by Leonard Woolley, it was found in fragments, and big sections of it have never been recovered. Still, what survives tells us a lot. Ur-Namma had himself portrayed much more like an Early Dynastic king than like the Akkadian king Naram-Sin. He was not striding up a mountainside in victory, but standing in prayer before the gods.


Fig. 7.2 Fragment of the stela of King Ur-Namma of Ur, late twenty-second century bce. (Courtesy of the Penn Museum, image 152349 and object B16676.14)

Ur-Namma (seen in the middle of the bottom register of the fragment in Fig. 7.2) wore a round hat with a wide brim, which had been the standard headdress of kings for centuries, and a long, fringed cloak that hung over his left shoulder and left arm and wrapped under his right arm, leaving the arm and his right shoulder bare. The gods still wore the tufted, layered tunics of the Early Dynastic period (gods always tended to be depicted in clothes that had gone out of fashion), but the kings had adopted a more modern style. To judge from the stela, Ur-Namma had a long beard, though his hair seems to have been short—it didn’t extend out under his round cap.

Unlike Naram-Sin, Ur-Namma had no horns on his cap and demanded no star-shaped dingir sign to be written before his name. He was not claiming to be a god. He was, instead, a pious man who was shown praying and pouring libations to various seated gods and goddesses. In one scene, the seated moon god Nanna reaches toward the king to hand him a rod and a coil of rope.11 These were measuring tools that an architect needed in order to lay out the plan of a building. Ur-Namma was telling his subjects that the temple in which they stood when viewing the stela was his own work and had been authorized by the god Nanna himself.

Ur-Namma was not just claiming to be the architect of buildings for the gods; according to what remains of the third register of the stela, he helped build them himself. We see the king following the god in a procession, preparing to go to the building site12 with an axe and hoe, along with a measuring compass and basket, all slung over his right shoulder.13 A clean-shaven assistant walks behind him, adjusting the basket. The register below is almost completely destroyed, but it clearly included a brick wall that was under construction, with men on ladders and carrying bricks.

Did the king really participate in construction like this? Would anyone have ever seen Ur-Namma carrying the tools of a workman? It’s unlikely, unless he was going to the third-millennium BCE equivalent of a formal groundbreaking ceremony. The actual construction was the work of hundreds, possibly thousands, of workmen. But you may remember King Ur-Nanshe of Lagash who, hundreds of years earlier, had shown himself in a relief sculpture with a basket of bricks on his head. Ur-Namma was making the same claim: he was a builder, not a destroyer; and his building project was spectacular. Someone standing in front of this stela had only to look up to witness the glory of this building. Ur-Namma had created, within the temple complex of Nanna, the largest structure that had ever been built in Mesopotamia up to that time.

It was called a ziggurat, a massive stepped tower made of mudbrick that was built at the heart of the temple complex dedicated to Nanna. It must have been visible across the city, standing around 30 meters (100 feet) high, with a grand three-part stairway leading to the top of the first level. One stairway extended straight out from the front of the structure, the other two hugged the sides of the ziggurat on either side, with all three staircases meeting at a single landing at the center of the first terrace. There was no practical reason for building three stairways to exactly the same point; perhaps they were used for dramatic ceremonies in which groups of people mounted them at the same time. Further stairways would have led to the higher levels, but those don’t survive. There were certainly two, and probably three, more levels (see Fig. 7.3).


Fig. 7.3 The ziggurat at Ur photographed soon after excavation, Ur III period, early twenty-first century bce. (Courtesy of the Penn Museum, image 8735b)

The base of the ziggurat measures 62.5 by 43 meters (205 by 141 feet),14 covering almost 2,700 square meters (almost 29,000 square feet). It would have been about the size of Westminster Abbey in London, had anyone been able to enter it, but that was impossible. The ziggurat was made of solid mudbrick; it had no rooms inside. Unlike almost any other Mesopotamian monument from this period, one can visit the Ur ziggurat in southern Iraq today. The first level still stands and has been reconstructed with a modern brick facing.

The ziggurat at Ur was not the only one planned by Ur-Namma. He also had ziggurats built in Uruk (for the goddess Inana), Eridu (for the god Enki), and Nippur (for the god Enlil), with all four structures under construction simultaneously. The ziggurat design was revolutionary and impressive. Once the plans were made, as was always the case for the construction of monumental buildings, a huge workforce had to be summoned, organized, trained, provisioned, housed, and put to work, not just in Ur but in the other three cities as well.

A Brickmaker for the Ziggurat at Ur

A man called up to work on making bricks for the ziggurat was assigned to a team of ten men, who answered to an overseer, and five of these teams formed a group that had its own supervisor.15 The brickmakers didn’t work in the city itself; their worksite was located in and around the pits where the clay was obtained, which would have been next to a river or canal.16 Men dug the clay from the ground, mixed it with straw in large basins, added water, shaped it in brick molds, laid the bricks out in yards to dry, then stacked the bricks ready for use.17 We know from tablets written at the time that each man was expected to manufacture approximately 240 bricks per day.18 Eventually they transported the stacks of bricks to the building site in the sacred complex in the heart of Ur.

Our laborer made bricks in two shapes: rectangular ones of around 25 × 16.66 centimeters (c. 10 × 6.5 inches) and square ones, which came in several sizes. A common type of brick was 33.33 centimeters (13 inches) on each side.19 The rectangular bricks were mostly put out in the sun to dry, whereas the square bricks were usually baked.20 Baking would have involved many kilns and a phenomenal quantity of fuel. Again, this must have taken place outside the city—the brick-firing yard would have been a loud, smoky facility.

Before the bricks were fired in the kiln, workers stamped some of them with an inscription that read: “Ur-Namma, king of Ur, the one who built the temple of the god Nanna.”21 Others bore a longer inscription: “For the god Nanna, his lord, Ur-Namma, king of Ur, built his temple (and) built the wall of Ur.”22 Each stamp had a handle on the back and was created with the cuneiform inscription in mirror writing so that it would appear the right way round on the finished brick. The workman who stamped the bricks didn’t need to be able to read or write to impress the pious message. The message wouldn’t even have been visible in the finished building; it was imprinted on the flat side that would have been covered by other bricks. The point was that the gods would know of Ur-Namma’s devotion, as would any future king who might have been tempted to claim the temple’s construction as his own.

One day, as one of these bricks was drying in the sun, a dog walked across it, leaving clear paw prints in the clay (see Fig. 7.4). Was this a feral dog wandering through the brickmaking yard? No one knows. Dogs had been domesticated in the Near East thousands of years earlier, perhaps as early as 13,000 BCE,23 and they would have been a familiar sight in the city. No doubt this one was unwelcome and was shooed away before causing any more damage. The brick was baked, taken to the building site, and positioned in a wall, after which it rested there for thousands of years. It was eventually excavated by Leonard Woolley, transported to the United States, and placed in the collection of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, where the brickyard’s canine trespasser is immortalized forever.24


Fig. 7.4 A brick from the walls of Ur with an inscription of King Ur-Namma of Ur and paw prints, late twenty-second century bce.

A scholar has calculated that the first level alone of the ziggurat at Ur would have required the manufacture of a staggering 7,595,100 baked and sun-dried bricks.25 Our brickmaker would have spent months, perhaps years, doing nothing during his days but mixing clay, molding bricks for this building, and stacking them on their sides to harden. He would have been out in the hot sun for much of that time, with clay caking into the skin of his hands and lodging under his fingernails. It was no doubt exhausting work.

You might suppose that the work of brickmaking and construction would have been entirely done by men, and through most of ancient Near Eastern history that does seem to have been true. But for the Ur III period this is belied by tablets from a place called Garshana in the province of Umma where, around 2030 BCE, a major construction project was taking place, involving a number of buildings and a surrounding wall.26 During this project, three women were responsible for supervising some of the construction teams.27 More surprising still, women made up two-thirds of the free laborers there, and seem to have done almost all the work of hauling bricks to the building site.28 Although the female laborers were paid less than their male counterparts (3 liters of grain per day, compared to 5 or 6 for a man), the women who supervised the workers received more than men in the same positions, perhaps because the women oversaw twice as many people.29 It’s possible that women were more prominent in the workforce of manual laborers than we currently suspect in other Ur III cities as well.

The bricklayers who set the bricks in place in the building may have had an even harder job than the brickmakers. To judge from the images on Ur-Namma’s stela, they used ladders to reach the top of the terrace as it grew, while balancing baskets of bricks or mortar on their heads. Like the brickmakers, they would have been organized in teams of ten, and groups of five teams, with overseers at every level keeping an eye on their work. The construction of the first stage of the Ur ziggurat required about 145,700 man-days of work, just to make and place the bricks.30 Depending on the size of the workforce, this may have taken several years.

New technologies had been developed to allow the ziggurat to stand securely, and these technological advances affected the builders’ work. Only the exterior bricks were baked. Inside a 2.4 meter (8 foot) thick façade of baked bricks set in bitumen, the core was built up of layer after layer of sun-dried bricks. Even after baking in the sun, these would not have completely dried out, so engineers developed a way to cope with the moisture that might otherwise have threatened the ziggurat’s integrity and to make the whole structure stronger. They ingeniously realized that reed mats laid between the layers of bricks increased the building’s structural stability, and “weeper holes” cut into the baked brick facing could allow moisture to escape as the bricks continued to dry. They also designed drains to rid the terraces of rainfall (which, though rare in this area, could be torrential). All these had to be incorporated as the building process continued. Once the bricklayers had completed a layer, work on the bricks halted while reed mats were spread across them. Other workers spread layers of mortar and bitumen.

All of the materials needed, other than the bricks—including bitumen, palm leaves, and reeds—had been acquired and processed or woven, as the case may be, and the tools, brick molds, baskets, and other containers used by the workmen must have been continually manufactured and maintained. The men (and perhaps women) would all have received rations, if they were slaves or corvée laborers, or monthly pay in barley, if they were free and had been hired,31 and these were distributed regularly. So one has to add scribes and granary supervisors to the list of people employed in ziggurat construction. The work team, made up of many residents of Ur and its surrounding towns, must have been huge and very visible in and around the city.

As during the construction of the Stone Cone Temple about 1,400 years before, but on a much larger scale, someone also had to keep track of where and when each team was working, of ordering the correct amount of building materials, making sure the materials arrived on time, and determining where they should be sent on the building site. Mathematical problems found from later eras show that the scribes learned how to calculate the number of bricks necessary for a building of a particular size, and even to take into account that only five-sixths of a wall was made of bricks; the rest was mortar.32 Although mathematical calculations are attested a thousand years before, in the Uruk period, these more sophisticated techniques must have developed by the Ur III period.

Fortunately, after so many centuries of practice, the Mesopotamians had a highly efficient system for managing a workforce. A group of men who shared the title “shidim” were in charge of these bigger organizational challenges, and they, too, were overseen by a boss, a “chief of the shidims.”33 Presumably the shidims talked to one another regularly and the chief of the shidims reported to the king on the progress of his ziggurat.

You may be wondering what the point was of building the ziggurat, given that it was a solid pile of brick. Honestly, scholars wonder too. Unlike an Egyptian pyramid, it wasn’t built to cover a tomb, and it didn’t have smooth sides—a ziggurat rose in several giant steps. Although pyramids had been constructed in Egypt for centuries before Ur-Namma built his ziggurats, the Mesopotamians didn’t necessarily borrow even the shape of the structure from Egypt. In any ancient land, a tall building was, of necessity, triangular in cross-section, with much less weight at the top than the bottom. Otherwise the structures would have fallen down. Mesopotamians had been building temples on top of platforms since the Uruk period; maybe the ziggurat was just a much larger platform than before. It was, though, only a fraction the size of the Great Pyramid in Egypt, which was 230 meters (756 feet) on each side, four times as long as the longest side of the ziggurat at Ur.

The ziggurat did not replace the shrine where the god Nanna lived, which was located next to it. It may, though, have had another shrine at the top, and it was probably a place of ritual, where participants ascended high above the rest of the ceremonial complex, perhaps to be closer to the gods in their celestial forms. Also, the view of the night sky was unobstructed from the top of the ziggurat, which would have allowed priests and priestesses to observe the movements of the stars and planets.

Incredibly, the ziggurat was not the only new building that Ur-Namma erected in the sacred precinct at Ur. He was also responsible for starting construction on a large square building called the E-hursag, which may have been a palace,34 and for building a thick buttressed enclosure wall, faced with baked bricks, around the whole sacred area.35

Ur-Namma’s Laws

If you had heard of Ur-Namma before this, outside of specialized books and articles, it is probably not because of his ziggurat or the expansion of his kingdom, but because he was the first known lawgiver in history, though even that title is often awarded, mistakenly, to Hammurabi of Babylon. Ur-Namma’s laws were inscribed on stone stelas, but these are all, unfortunately, lost.36 We have instead a fragmentary clay cylinder from the Ur III period that was inscribed with the laws,37 along with five partial copies of the laws on broken cuneiform tablets, written centuries later, by scribes in school. These do not have the same impressive effect as the seven-foot-tall stela on which the later king Hammurabi inscribed his own laws, but Ur-Namma’s laws predate Hammurabi’s by more than 300 years.

Ur-Namma promulgated his laws at the height of his reign, after he had, as he noted in an inscription, “liberated Akshak, Mirad, Girkal, Kazallu, whatever (territories) were under the subjugation of Anshan.”38 This was one of his few references to military action. The cities listed were to the north of Ur, in the region of Akkad, whereas Anshan was about 800 kilometers (about 500 miles) to the south and east of Ur, near modern Shiraz in Iran. Anshan seems to have taken advantage of the disarray that followed the Gutian invasion to take control of the region of Akkad, so in a way Ur-Namma was “liberating” these regions, as he claimed, though he seems to have taken control there in Anshan’s stead.

It seems that Ur-Namma didn’t intend this inscription to record a brand-new innovation—he didn’t conceive of himself as inventing the idea of law. The laws appear only after a 170-line account in praise of his own great deeds, almost as though the laws were an afterthought.

We refer to that first section of the inscription as the “prologue,” but it was important in its own right. Ur-Namma wanted to make a good impression in it. Right off the bat, he emphasized his piety by listing the “regular offerings” of barley, sheep, and butter that he set up for the gods. He continued with a list of ways in which he had improved life for his people, especially with regard to the economy: he had re-established trade with Magan (Oman), rooted out corruption, standardized weights and measures, regulated boat traffic on the rivers, and made the roads safe for travelers (including building inns for them).39 In this, he might remind you of King Urukagina of Lagash, several centuries earlier, in the Early Dynastic period, who had also presented himself as a reformer. Ur-Namma was the anti-Sargon, to hear him tell it. He made a special note of how good he was to people who were otherwise oppressed: “I did not deliver the orphan to the rich. I did not deliver the widow to the mighty. I did not deliver the man with but one shekel to the man with one mina (i.e. 60 shekels). I did not deliver the man with but one sheep to the man with one ox.”40 Ur-Namma then summed up the essence of his reforms: “I eliminated enmity, violence, and cries for justice. I established justice in the land.” It sounds a little like a campaign advertisement, but kings didn’t run for office, and of course he was already king. It didn’t hurt, though, to be loved, and capitalizing on the Mesopotamians’ love of order and dislike of violence and enmity was a good strategy to discourage anyone who might be thinking of usurping the throne. Mesopotamian kings always needed the support of their people;41 Ur-Namma clearly was aware of this.

After the self-congratulatory prologue, the inscription then segues into a series of laws, introduced only by the statement “At that time:” They don’t read like modern laws, though. Each one is conditional. It begins with “If a man . . .” (or “If a male slave,” or “If the wife of a young man,” and so on) and then describes a crime or transgression of some sort, and ends with the fine or punishment that should be imposed.

The most complete copy of the inscription includes eighty-five laws, most of which are fairly complete.42 Forty-five of the laws pertain to crimes, ranging from murder, theft, and bodily harm to neglecting a field or losing a sheep in a sheepfold. Fifteen of these look, at first glance, similar to the biblical “eye-for-an-eye” type of laws (known as lex talionis), but Ur-Namma’s equivalents were mostly “monetary-fine-for-an-eye” laws, which reflect a very different idea of punishment. So law 23 reads “If a man causes the loss of another man’s eye, he will pay thirty shekels.”43 In fact, monetary fines were imposed more often than any other penalty; a fine was mandated in twenty-two of the criminal laws. These ranged from two shekels of silver for cutting another man in some way (the term for the afflicted body part is missing)44 to a hefty sixty-shekel fine for fracturing another man’s bone with a weapon.45 Ur-Namma recommended the death penalty for only seven crimes, including murder, banditry, rape of a betrothed woman, and beating a woman to death.46 A free man could also be put to death for marrying the widow of his elder brother or for falsely claiming to have lost property, and an enslaved man could be executed for marrying his mistress.47 The laws were not comprehensive; most crimes that one might think of were not mentioned.

Thirty-six of the others—almost half the extant laws that can be made out—represent attempts to fix wages, rents, prices, and interest rates, and to mandate inheritance practices and divorce provisions. One suspects the price controls were ineffective.

Even though he wrote down the first laws, Ur-Namma didn’t invent the judicial system. Enmetena of Lagash had called himself the “King of Justice,”48 so the idea of justice was centuries old already. Contracts with lists of witnesses had been written long before Ur-Namma’s time; even the Ushumgal inscription back in the Early Dynastic period (with its depictions of the priest Ushumgal and his daughter Shara-igizi-Abzu) seems to have been a contract of some kind.49 Before Ur-Namma’s laws were written, judges had presided over courts, considered evidence, and pronounced verdicts for a very long time. You don’t need laws to have a judicial system. In fact, the proclamation of these “world’s first laws,” which we see as earth-shaking in their importance to world history, doesn’t seem to have been regarded as a major event at the time. Ur-Namma might simply have collected some legal precedents and added them to his inscription to further burnish his image and provide concrete evidence that he had indeed “established justice,” as he claimed. There’s no clear evidence that the laws were followed.

Geme-Suen and the Wife of Ur-lugal, the Head-Gardener: Adversaries in Court

The court in the city of Umma was the setting for a dispute between two women. The name of one of the women is unknown; she was described in the record of her court hearing only as the wife of a man named Ur-lugal. The other woman was named Geme-Suen.50 Court records like theirs give us a vivid sense of how the judicial system worked. In the Ur III period, many court records were drawn up in the city of Umma.51

We don’t know exactly where this court proceeding took place, but it was probably close to a temple. A scribe kept track of what happened, and it is his record that is to be found in the British Museum on a tablet that is just a little more than two inches wide and three inches tall.52

The discussion began with Geme-Suen stating that the wife of Ur-lugal had borrowed two minas of silver from her, and that she still owed some of the money. Two minas represented a large amount of wealth, even for a relatively rich person. One shekel of silver was equivalent to 300 liters of barley,53 and a manual worker was paid 60 liters of barley per month;54 therefore a shekel of silver represented five months of pay. Sixty shekels made a mina, so the two minas that Ur-lugal’s wife had borrowed were equivalent to 120 shekels, or fifty years’ pay for a worker. It’s unclear what Ur-lugal’s wife needed it for, but Geme-Suen must have been a wealthy woman to have had that amount on hand and available to lend. Ur-lugal was described as the head-gardener, so his wife would not have been poor either.

It’s possible that a contract had been drawn up at the time that Geme-Suen had lent the silver to Ur-lugal’s wife. Contracts were widely used by this time to create formal records of such things as loans or sales. It would have been written by a scribe, in the presence of witnesses, and the interest rate might have been listed. Usually, for loans of silver, this was steep—20 percent. Some loan contracts also listed a time when the loan had to be repaid.55

Back in the court room, the wife of Ur-lugal had an answer to Geme-Suen’s demand for the rest of the loan to be repaid. “Ki’ag closed my case,”56 she stated, presumably speaking to the judge who was presiding. She meant that this case had already been tried and decided in her favor. She did not owe anything. The man named Ki’ag, who had overseen the previous trial, seems to have been present for this new one as well. He was one of three known judges at Umma who presided in court cases,57 so he would have been well known to the judge to whom the wife of Ur-lugal was speaking. We know from other sources that Ki’ag had also donated animals for sacrifice at the city’s New Year’s festival,58 and on one occasion he had administered an oath to someone in his own house.59 He was an eminent man of Umma.

The wife of Ur-lugal continued to speak in her own defense, by identifying another powerful man who would support her claim: “Lu-Suen was my commissioner in the concluded case,” she said.60 Commissioners, with the title “mashkim,” oversaw court cases in the Ur III period. They prepared everything in advance of the trial, recorded the outcome, and are mentioned frequently in the documents.61 In this instance, the judge decided to check her story. He called on Lu-Suen to confirm that the wife of Ur-lugal was telling the truth, but it turned out that she’d made a mistake in mentioning him. Lu-Suen didn’t help her. The record states that “he declared: ‘It is a lie.’ ”62

What seems to have happened next is that, interestingly, Ki’ag, the judge from the first case, got involved.63 He asked all five of Ur-lugal’s children to swear an oath, presumably to confirm that their mother had been telling the truth. But they decided not to support her and refused to swear. Had they agreed, they would all have been required to go to the temple so that the oath could be taken in the presence of the god.64

At this point, Ur-lugal’s wife decided to back down. Neither the commissioner from the previous trial nor her own children were willing to lie for her. She acknowledged that, yes, she still owed ten shekels of silver to Geme-Suen. Not only that, but one of her sons admitted that he also owed five shekels.

The court case doesn’t say anything else, except to list five witnesses who attended the court proceeding. Records like this almost always ended with the oath, whether or not the people involved decided to swear it, because the oath (or refusal to swear it) often determined the judge’s decision.65 In this case Geme-Suen won the lawsuit, and the wife of Ur-lugal had to pay back the rest of the silver.

This little slice of life in Umma reflects several aspects of the legal system there, which are confirmed by other court cases as well. First, unlike in most other Mesopotamian cities and other times, each case in Umma was tried by one judge. Elsewhere, a whole panel of judges—as many as seven of them—was needed.66 No one at this time was a judge by profession; men like Ki’ag who took on the role from time to time were literate and important in the city, but they had other jobs as well.67 Second, the judge cared about evidence and wanted to make sure that the parties to the case were telling the truth. That was why he questioned Lu-Suen, and that was what the oath would have been for—judge Ki’ag tried to get Ur-lugal’s children to swear in support of their mother so that he could determine whether she was being truthful.

The original statements in a trial were rarely made under oath, but oaths often came in later in the proceedings and were seen as potent legal tools throughout ancient Near Eastern history. Oaths brought the power of the gods into the lawsuit. They’re mentioned in Ur-Namma’s laws as well. One law states that “if a man appears as a witness, but retracts (his) oath, he will make compensation for whatever was the matter in that trial.”68 The children of Ur-lugal had not presented themselves as witnesses—they had been called up by the judge—and they were wise not to take that oath. Apparently they refused because their mother was lying and they knew they would have perjured themselves. It would not have been worth it: they could have been responsible for the silver due in the case. Another nagging concern no doubt prevented them from lying under oath: the gods would have known they had done so and the gods had no patience with humans who swore false oaths in their names. The children would have believed that the gods’ punishment was likely to have been much worse than paying an amount of silver. So, refusing to take an oath was a way of telling the judge that you would be lying if you did so. This helped him determine the truth of the case.

A third feature of this court record that you might have noticed is that no lawyers were mentioned. There simply were no lawyers; the profession didn’t exist yet. Men and women of all classes (including slaves)69 represented themselves in court and were expected to provide their own witnesses and evidence. There was no jury; the judge or judges made the decision alone.

In two other laws in Ur-Namma’s list, he mentions another way of getting at the truth of a case—beyond taking statements from the main parties, examining contracts, and putting witnesses under oath—namely, the River Ordeal. It was especially useful in cases involving accusations of adultery and witchcraft, for which impartial evidence was hard to find; there were rarely any witnesses and there certainly weren’t any contracts. One law reads as follows: “If a man accuses someone of sleeping with a betrothed woman, after the river clears him, the man who made the accusation will pay 20 shekels of silver.”70 We know from other sources that the River Ordeal provided the judges with a way to learn the truth of a situation, in a sense by asking the gods to rule on the case. If no one could find witnesses to a crime, the accused would be required to jump into the river. If this person drowned, the gods had indicated that he or she was guilty, and conveniently carried out the death penalty at the same time. Surviving the ordeal, on the other hand, was an indication of innocence and, in this case, resulted in a fine being imposed on the man who made the false accusation.

This wasn’t perceived to be superstition; everyone believed that the gods knew the truth and would reveal it. Better still, the sincerity of this belief actually often resulted in the truth coming out. If someone agreed to leap in the river, trusting in the gods that he or she would survive, that person was obviously innocent; on the other hand, a guilty person would often confess rather than submit to their inevitable fate of being drowned in the river. Either of these responses from an accused person prevented the Ordeal from being necessary; it seems often to have been canceled. In spite of the existence of Ur-Namma’s laws that invoke it, the River Ordeal is never mentioned in any of the surviving court records of the Ur III period, so it must have been rare, though some administrative texts do refer to people going to or returning from the River Ordeal.71

Many of these legal practices seem to have predated Ur-Namma’s laws and don’t seem to have been particularly affected by them. Very few of the court cases even pertain to crimes covered by the surviving laws, and they don’t mention judges consulting the laws, either. The laws didn’t comprise a “law code” the way we think of such a thing today. The term “code” suggests an attempt at providing a comprehensive and binding collection of laws, and that is not what Ur-Namma did. Judges may have been aware of his laws, but they decided cases based on their own analysis of the evidence and their own conclusions about the suitable punishment.

In the case of Geme-Suen v. Ur-lugal’s wife, the judge decided in favor of the richer, more powerful of the two women, but this wasn’t a result of the judicial system favoring the rich. The court records reflect surprising transparency in the legal system, and a genuine desire for justice to prevail. Had Geme-Suen been at fault, it’s clear from other cases that she would have been the one who would have had to pay. It’s also clear, not just from the laws but also from records of court cases, that fines were by far the most common form of punishment.

Waifs, Prisoners, and Lu-Nanna, an Escaped Slave

The courts were available to anyone who needed them, it seems. In one instance, a man who had been released from slavery was accused of lying about his freedom. He went to the judges with the contract for his manumission in hand as evidence, and his freedom was confirmed.72

But the courts upheld the social and political system, and slavery was part of that system in this era. The story of an enslaved man named Lu-Nanna reflects this.73 He lived in the city of Umma, subject to a man named Uda. A court record relating to him notes that “Uda appointed (Lu-Nanna) for service as ‘bowman.’ ”74 It’s unclear exactly what this meant. Did Lu-Nanna perform Uda’s military service for him? What was Uda’s profession? How had Lu-Nanna become a slave in the first place? None of these questions is answered by the court record, but it’s possible that Lu-Nanna was sold into slavery by one or both of his parents. Sale contracts from the Ur III period show that this was a known practice, though the majority of such sales were of daughters.75 Some parents sold one or more of their children into slavery apparently because the family was desperately poor and could not afford to support them. The very existence of such slave sale contracts shows that this was seen as an acceptable (if tragic) way for a family to cope with poverty.

It was not the only way to become a slave, however. Adults were sometimes enslaved to men and women to whom they owed money or barley, so perhaps Lu-Nanna had landed in slavery because of debts that he wasn’t able to pay back to Uda. It’s unlikely that he had been captured as a prisoner of war; such men and women were apparently enslaved by the great households—the temples and palace.76

In any event, according to the court record, Lu-Nanna had two sons, both of whom had also been enslaved with him, but Uda had freed them, while keeping Lu-Nanna captive. But then Uda died, and Lu-Nanna seems to have decided that, during this chaotic time for his owner’s family, he had a chance at gaining his freedom, not by manumission, like his sons, but by escaping. The Ur III documents include other examples of runaway slaves;77 Lu-Nanna might have heard stories about them. He apparently knew he had to get out of Umma and to flee as far away as possible to avoid being captured and brought back. He was local to the area and would have had a good sense of the countryside around his city;78 here was his opportunity.

In the terse language typical of court proceedings, the scribe wrote about Lu-Nanna that “The slave [was thought to have] died in Anshan where he fled.”79 Lu-Nanna almost managed to gain his freedom. He had walked more than 850 kilometers (more than 525 miles), probably traveling south along the river to the Lower Sea (the Persian Gulf) then turning inland to the southeast, making his way through high mountain passes, until he reached Anshan. If he managed to travel 24 kilometers (15 miles) a day (which was considered normal), it would have taken him thirty-five days to get there. He was in danger the whole time, not just from cold and hunger but from men who were sent out specifically in pursuit of fugitive slaves. Lu-Nanna no doubt avoided main roads wherever he could (though mountain passes would not have allowed him to stray far from the road), and he probably traveled at night and hid from passing caravans. Some of the men searching for him and other fugitive slaves were well organized and supported by the king. One such official, a man named Shugatum, received rations of stew, fish, beer, and bread from the Ur government when he was “traveling to capture runaway workers, slaves of (the goddess) Ninhursag,” which he did regularly.80 Shugatum’s main priority was to find institutional slaves who had run away from the temples or palaces, but he would have been on the lookout for privately owned slaves as well.

Everyone knew that owners paid rewards for captured fugitives. One such reward was even enshrined in Ur-Namma’s laws: “If . . . a female slave escapes and crosses the township limits, and someone brings her back, the owner of the slave will pay two shekels of silver to the man who brought her back.”81 (If an equivalent law existed for a male slave like Lu-Nanna, it is lost, but a similar reward would have been expected.)

Once he made it to Anshan, Lu-Nanna seems to have come up with an ingenious idea. He contrived to send back word to people in Umma that he had died. Now perhaps the authorities would stop looking for him. But this tale does not have a happy ending; Lu-Nanna’s luck ran out. In Anshan, a man named Gudea, son of Gududu, recognized him. (This was not, of course, the king of Lagash named Gudea, though his name may have paid tribute to the earlier king.) Somehow Gudea captured Lu-Nanna and brought him all the way back to Umma. Unfortunately, the court record gives us no clue as to how he did so, but it would have entailed another thirty-five-day journey.

Lu-Nanna might well have been imprisoned when he got back to Umma. Prisons didn’t comprise a major part of the judicial system but were used as a way to house criminals before trial,82 or before punishment, and to keep runaways under watch before returning them to work.83 Ur-Namma’s laws include just one reference to imprisonment, but for a different reason: “If a man keeps someone captive, this man will go to jail (and) pay fifteen shekels of silver.”84 This was an eye-for-an-eye (lex talionis) law, making the offender suffer the same misery as his victim, in addition to paying a heavy fine.

In spite of the fact that fines were much more common than prison sentences, prisoners did have a patron goddess, Nungal, who watched over prisons and punishments.85 Lu-Nanna might well have prayed to her as he awaited trial.

Copying a Sumerian hymn written in praise of this goddess was a popular written assignment for students in schools in the city of Nippur about three centuries later, in the eighteenth century BCE. Forty-three whole and partial copies of the hymn have been found there on clay tablets and fragments.86 It’s unclear when the hymn was originally written, but it might already have been known in the Ur III period. As so often is the case—as with Sargon’s royal inscriptions and Enheduana’s hymns—these later scribes kept alive documents that would otherwise be lost to us.

The Hymn to Nungal may actually have been written by a prisoner during his incarceration. The original author seems to have been a scribe praying to Nungal to protect him from the death penalty.87 As an eyewitness to prison life, the scribe provides a description of the prison. It was a bleak place, the “house of sorrow,” to which men were led in blindfolds.88 The men imprisoned there longed to get out, counting the days, but losing track of time: “Brother counts for brother the days of misfortune, (but) their calculations get utterly confused.”89 If Lu-Nanna was locked up in such a place he might perhaps have cried out for help: “The interior of the House gives rise to weeping, laments, and cries.”90 The sense of being trapped was palpable—the men longed for the door of the prison to open for them: “The men in there, like sparrows held by the talons of the big owl, look towards the opening like to the rising sun.”91

The authorities seem to have seen the prison as more than a form of punishment, however. The scribe wrote that “Its brick walls crush the evil ones, but give birth to honest men.”92 This was not the only time that the author mentioned this idea—that imprisonment could also work to rehabilitate criminals and help bring them back into society. Using what were purported to be Nungal’s own words, the scribe wrote at the end that the goddess had “built it (the prison) with compassion. I soothe this man’s heart, I cool him down.”93 She likened the process to burnishing precious metal, making the prisoner “shine from among the dust.”94 She did this, she said, for the benefit of the prisoner’s personal god, to make the prisoner a good person so that he could be returned “to the good hands of his god, so that this man’s god be praised forever, so that this man may praise me (and) tell about my greatness.”95 Lu-Nanna, like everyone else, would have believed he had a personal god and goddess, who watched over him. The hymn suggests that a man’s behavior reflected on his god, and his rehabilitation into society after a crime was also a source of praise for the god, and for the goddess Nungal.

Lu-Nanna’s court appointment arrived, and he was taken to the judge, meeting his captor Gudea there. Also present was Uda’s son, who had inherited his father’s slaves, including Lu-Nanna, after his father’s death. The judge instructed Gudea to swear an oath that he was telling the truth. Gudea was happy to do so, knowing that a reward awaited him. Gudea received much more than the two shekels Ur-Namma had specified for the return of an enslaved woman; Uda’s son was to pay him ten shekels for his efforts. This was as much as the value of an adult male slave;96 clearly Lu-Nanna’s return was appreciated. In the end, the unfortunate Lu-Nanna wound up right where he started: Uda’s son “appointed (Lu-Nanna) to his bowman service.”97

As in the case of Geme-Suen’s silver loan, Ur-Namma’s laws were somewhat relevant to this trial, but none of them matched the situation exactly. The large reward given to Gudea, son of Gududu, was determined by the judge, who perhaps took into consideration the great distance Gudea had traveled to bring Lu-Nanna back.

As you will have gathered, slavery was widespread in the Ur III period, but in some cases it is oddly hard to define who was and who was not considered to be enslaved. Slaves who worked in domestic situations had different experiences from slaves who worked for the palace or temples. Slaves were treated in very different ways depending on their situations. Some people who were described with the term for “slave” in the Ur III period seem to have been something more like servants, with considerable freedoms and even authority over others.98 Slaves whose status was caused by debt were formerly free people who would be freed when the debt was considered to be paid, but slaves who had been purchased had no legal way out. The steady stream of fugitives testifies to that.

Even the Sumerian terms that we translate as “slave” could be vague in meaning. The word for a male slave was “arad” and the word for a female slave was “geme,” but a whole group of women who weren’t necessarily slaves were also called “geme”: women who worked as laborers for the great households of the temples and palaces.99 Some of them were enslaved, some were not. On the other hand, the hunters of fugitive slaves went looking for low-ranking institutional workers as well as slaves, not just geme women but also their supposedly free male equivalents, known as “gurush.”100 These low-ranking, unskilled workers couldn’t be bought and sold, but they had no choice about where they worked and they were punished if they fled. Their status may have been a step above slavery, but not by much.101

One group of such institutional workers weren’t even adults. The term used to describe these children translates as “left to themselves.”102 They had no families to support and nurture them, just the great households for which they worked. It’s not that they were all orphans (though some were). Most were described by the name of either a father or mother, but their parents hadn’t brought them up, hadn’t put them up for adoption, and hadn’t left them with a relative. Instead, the children had been placed in the palace or temple, “left to themselves,” to work under armed guard, almost as though they were slaves.103

As we have seen, household and family were important in a great many ways in the ancient Near East, and one has to imagine that these children, lacking the safety net of a family, were vulnerable and very much alone. The term used for them is sometimes translated as “waifs.”104 One waif even seems to have been thrown into a well soon after birth and presumably left for dead. Fortunately, he didn’t die, but had been rescued from the well and brought up through babyhood (though we don’t know by whom), before starting service to the temple when he was a young boy. His name revealed his difficult start in life: he was Putapada, which meant “Found-(and-pulled)-from-a-well.”105

The waifs all were provided with barley to live on: the younger ones were given 20 liters of barley per month, and the older adolescent ones were given 40 liters, which was enough to live on. Most people who worked for the palace had families to go home to (even enslaved people weren’t separated from their families), but the waifs seem to have had no one.

Many of the waifs were listed as being the children of prostitutes.106 Perhaps their mothers could not take care of them while continuing to work, perhaps some of the mothers had died, or perhaps the children had been removed from their mothers. Curiously, although prostitution is sometimes referred to as “the world’s oldest profession,” there is little evidence for it in documents from the ancient Near East. Presumably some women were paid for sex in many eras, but we can’t be sure. Only occasionally, as here, when a child had been separated from his mother, and her profession was listed, do we get a glimpse of a world beyond the normal realm of scribes and administration. In this case, the records hint at an intimate, profound tragedy for the mother and child.

The armed guards who watched the waifs were presumably there to prevent them from running away. One census list of people working under armed guard in the town of Girsu included not just 250 waifs but also many other people at the margins of society.107 They had recently been moved from one public organization to another and were being registered and counted. It was a mixed group of poor people: the waifs, men in “gangs” (and sons of men in gangs), wives of men who had escaped, a few weavers, slaves, and fullers. Another document listed the barley that these new arrivals had received. It must have been a harsh life for all of the people on these lists, but especially for the unwanted children among them.

Shulgi of Ur: A Divine King and Administrative Reformer

King Ur-Namma’s death came suddenly. According to a line in a literary account that may have been commissioned by his widow Watartum, he might have died in battle, but he might also have died naturally.108 Whatever the cause, his death seems to have brought great sadness to the land, according to the author: “Because [the evil] made the faithful shepherd leave. They weep bitter tears in their broad squares where merriment had reigned. . . . They spend (their) days in lamenting the faithful shepherd who has been snatched away.”109 Throughout the lament, the king is referred to as “Shepherd Ur-Namma.” The king as shepherd was a compelling and lasting image; many later Near Eastern kings endeavored to be seen the same way.

The kings of the Third Dynasty of Ur managed to hold much of Mesopotamia together for about a century. Ur-Namma’s son, Shulgi (see Fig. 7.5), ruled over the kingdom for almost half this time, a remarkable forty-eight years (2094–2046 BCE). During the first twenty years of his reign he continued traditional practices and maintained his father’s priorities. Shulgi finished Ur-Namma’s building projects—the ziggurats, the E-hursag palace at Ur, the wall around the sacred temenos. His father had married one of his sons to a princess from the Syrian city of Mari; Shulgi, in turn, arranged a marriage for his daughter with the king of Anshan, in what is now Iran.110 And he followed the lead of Sargon and Naram-Sin in appointing his daughter to be the en-priestess of Nanna at Ur.


Fig. 7.5 Bronze statuette of King Shulgi of Ur from a foundation deposit, Ur III period, early twenty-first century bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Then, around the middle of his reign, Shulgi began to shake things up. He decided, following the audacious lead of King Naram-Sin of Akkad a century and a half before him, that he was, in fact, not just a king but a god; accordingly, he had hymns composed in his own honor. Scribal students copied these hymns for centuries as literary classics, which ensured Shulgi’s fame through subsequent generations. He even insisted on being worshiped, with his E-hursag palace serving as his temple.111 This went beyond even what Naram-Sin had commanded.

Shulgi also reorganized the cities of the empire and set up a new system for collecting taxes, called the “bala” system. A governor, installed in one of about twenty provinces in Sumer and Akkad, took control of the economy there, particularly of the temple estates and the irrigation systems that watered them. The provinces then paid taxes to the king. The payments were made in animals, grains, and other staples, and people were required to fulfill work obligations; together, these were called “bala.” Each province owed the bala during a different month, to keep goods coming in throughout the year. It was not only a one-way arrangement, however. Goods were also redistributed back to the provinces as needed. Provinces were also home to military governors, appointed by the king. These men oversaw state fields that were allocated to soldiers and to some other government officers as their compensation.

The whole project of administering this system depended on an army of scribes keeping records of every sheep, goat, ox, and bushel of grain that came into and went out of the royal warehouses. Much of the processing of goods took place at a specially constructed redistribution center that Shulgi founded near Nippur. It was called Puzrish-Dagan and was the origin of many of the Ur III records.

Shulgi’s administrative reforms affect us now, as we look at the sweep of ancient Near Eastern history, because the scribes who ran this system created a veritable flood of cuneiform records (see Fig. 7.6). About 100,000 tablets written in the Ur III period have been found so far, and hundreds of thousands more must remain in the ground. It’s estimated that about 500,000 cuneiform documents are housed in museums and private collections around the world from all eras of ancient history,112 so about a fifth of them were written during the Third Dynasty of Ur, most of those from Shulgi’s reign and those of his successors. They represent just a few decades out of the more than 3,000 years that cuneiform was in use. It’s not clear whether this is because many more administrative records were kept during the Ur III period than at any other time, or whether this is an accident of excavation. But the ubiquity of these documents means that the Ur III period looms large in Mesopotamian studies. Thousands of the tablets can be found on a website called the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI).113 CDLI houses images, transliterations,114 and some translations of more than 320,000 cuneiform tablets, a number that is constantly growing.115


Fig. 7.6 Sealed cuneiform tablet recording workers needed for irrigation work, from Umma, c. 2042 bce. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Ur III tablets provide a vast wellspring of information for studies of many aspects of life—agriculture, dairy farming, shipping, trade, forestry, pottery manufacture, religious festivals, and on and on. Countless names appear on these tablets. Each of them was a living, breathing person whose life consisted of much more than being a line item on an administrative record kept by the local governor or temple. I’ve chosen to highlight the legal system, slavery, and waifs in this chapter, but I could have taken you to many other workplaces and institutions to meet many other people.116

Curiously, even though the Ur III period is so extraordinarily well documented, a fundamental question about the era remains unresolved: Did the king control the entire economy? Some scholars have seen this period as one marked by a tyrannical desire for control on the part of the kings, who owned all the land and all the workshops, with their subjects being paid in barley and functioning as little more than slaves to a vast bureaucracy.117 Others believe this to be an illusion created by the documents that survive. Since only the great institutions—the temples, palace, and governors’ households—had access to literacy, we only have records of the activities that they oversaw.118 These certainly involved much of the population, but might there not have been space for a little private enterprise? A study of the use of silver in this era indicates that some local trading took place, in addition to that done by the great institutions.119 People seem to have had access to some wealth beyond their subsistence fields or monthly pay, perhaps by selling vegetables from their gardens, or cloth or pottery that they created. And some individuals, like Geme-Suen who was in a position to lend two minas of silver to another woman, apparently controlled considerable wealth. Perhaps not every corner of the economy and society was controlled from above. Other scholars argue that even the written records from the great institutions can be interpreted differently. The Ur III administrative organization may not have been radically different from those that had come before. It may not, strictly speaking, even have been a bureaucracy.120 Unlike a classic bureaucracy, the administration still had a concern for individuals, it allowed families to hold on to offices across generations, and it depended on local institutional households, such as the temples that had dominated Mesopotamian society and economy ever since the Uruk period.121 It’s true that people in the Ur III empire were subject to patriarchal households, including the great households of the temples and palaces, which continued to form the basic social and economic building blocks of Mesopotamian society. But for most people, their contact with these institutions did not go beyond the level of their city or region. The governors sent a portion of the yields of their estates and the manufactures of their subjects as bala payments to the king, but the average person in the empire had little direct contact with, or perhaps even awareness of, the supposedly tyrannical kings in Ur.

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