A new piece over at Political Theology Today on ‘How to Read Ancient Texts’. Obviously, I’m not the first to reflect on that perennial question, but these reflections relate directly to how one reads texts in relation to socio-economic life.
12 October, 2013
12 June, 2013
Walking around Berlin, you can’t help notice the advertisements for a new show at the Pergamon Museum, called ‘Uruk Megacity‘. While you might forgive the curators for trying to lure visitors, the question is whether Uruk was really a city, let alone a mega-city. The walls themselves at the greatest expanse in the fourth millennium encompassed 6 square kilometres. Huge? More like a country town. Estimating population is a bit like divination, so estimates range from 20,000 to 50,000 (the top end is little fanciful). A decent town, perhaps, or even a small city. Except that this is the total population of the whole city-state of Uruk, which was really a rather modest affair. At a stretch, you may want to argue that by comparison with other places, it counts as a city, where most of the few centres were around 3000 each. But ‘mega-city’ is really pushing it. Then again, ‘Uruk, Megatown’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
29 May, 2013
We have already had the garden variety domestic squabble, in which women regularly crushed their men’s testicles. Some other common features of arguments have also turned. To begin with, there’s biting from the laws of Eshnunna:
If a man bites the nose of another man and thus cuts it off, he shall weigh out and deliver 60 shekels of silver; an eye – 60 shekels; a tooth – 30 shekels; an ear – 30 shekels; a slap to the cheek – he shall weigh out and deliver 10 shekels.
No wonder they wore out their teeth so early. This one is perhaps my favourite, from the Hittite laws:
If anyone steals a door in a quarrel, he shall replace everything that may get lost in the house, and he shall pay 40 shekels of silver.
That is the first thing that comes mind if I’m in a quarrel: I’ll steal his door!
29 May, 2013
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It is pretty clear that ‘prices’ in the ancient Near East had very little to do with mechanisms of demand and supply. Customary if the best way to describe them, and even the various petty potentates weighed in by inscribing such prices in clay. But there is one law of Hammurabi that I find very intriguing, since it suggests that raising your price actually lowers the value of your product. Here it is:
If a woman innkeeper should refuse to accept grain for the price of beer but accepts only silver measured by the large weight, thereby reducing the value of the beer in relation to the grain, they shall charge and convict that woman innkeeper and they shall cast her into the water.
Let’s see if we can figure out the assumption here. You walk into an inn and order a beer, plonking a bag of grain on the bar – as one does. ‘No,’ says the innkeeper, only silver here.’ She pulls out a large wight and tells you to put your silver on the scales. Wow, that’s heaps more silver than if I’d got hold of it by swapping some grain for silver first. Now, the customary relationships between grain-beer, grain-silver, and silver-beer do seem to have some connection. Fair enough, but how does asking a relatively higher price devalue the beer? Easy: you get less beer for the silver. Hence the beer is worth less.
27 May, 2013
Most law collections are pretty boring reads. Hammurabi is a snore, with grandiose claims to his achievements in bringing justice, peace and well-being to all. Not so the Middle Assyrian Laws. Here we do come up against sheer difference, for the mind can barely get around the reasons for pressing these laws into clay for all eternity to follow.
If a woman should crush a man’s testicle during a quarrel, they should cut off one of her fingers. And if the physician should bandage it, but the second testicle then becomes infected along with it …, or if she should crush the second testicle during the quarrel – they shall gouge out both her .. [text curiously broken here]
One can only imagine what Assyrian domestic quarrels were like.
Then there is:
If a man lays a hand upon a woman, attacking her like a rutting bull, and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall cut off one of his fingers. If he should kiss her, they shall draw his lower lip across the blade of an axe and cut it off.
Perhaps the most intriguing are these two:
If a man furtively spreads rumours about his comrade, saying, ‘Everyone sodomises him,’ or in a quarrel in public says to him, ‘Everyone sodomises you,’ and further, ‘I can prove the charges against you,’ but is unable to prove the charges and does not prove the charges, they shall strike that man 50 blows with rods; he shall perform the king’s service for one full month; they shall cut off his hair; he shall pay 3,600 shekels of lead.
If a man sodomises his comrade and they prove the charges against him and find him guilty, they shall sodomise him and turn him into a eunuch.
That should stamp out sodomy.
26 May, 2013
On the universal anachronism of studying the ancient world, it is one thing to rattle on about narratives of difference, false universals and the imperialism of neoclassical economics. It is another thing to put it this way:
It is gross ethnocentrism to assume that the monk, the feudal lord, the Inca priest-king, the commissar, and the Trobriand islander are directed in their material lives to abide by the same market rules that drive the London stockbroker and the Iowa wheat farmer (George Dalton, 1971).
26 May, 2013
A significant source for The Sacred Economy is Soviet-era research on the ancient Near East. Apart from Igor Diakonoff, to whom you will find occasional references in other works, one of the great pleasures in doing this is to include many references to people like: Iu. Semenov, G. A. Melikishvili, M.A. Vitkin, Nelly Kozyrova, K.K. Zel’in, L.V. Danilova, Ninel Jankowska, G. Il’yin, and good old Vasilii Vasilevich Struve.
24 May, 2013
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‘A room of your own’ is a comparatively modern concept, which has, through many centuries, been filtered down from the great houses of the wealthy. Shared rooms, shared attics, shared beds, shared lives have been and are the common lot of most people, involving a close, noisy, often smelly intimacy between people and livestock (Roberts, Landscapes of Settlement, p. 85).
Or as an old Dutch saying has it, ‘where it smells it is warm’
23 May, 2013
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The scribes of ancient Egypt certainly had their hands full with even the most simple of letters. For instance:
It is the servant of the estate Sekhsekh’s son Inetsu who addresses the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), Sekhsekh’s son Penhensu: It is in order to learn about every favourable circumstance of the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), that the servant of the estate has sent this letter. In the favour of Montu, lord of the Theban nome, of Amon, lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands, of Sobek, of Horus, of Hathor and of all the gods! It is as the servant of the estate desires that they shall let the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), spend millions of years in life, properity and health, starting from today.
The servant of the estate has said: this is a communication to the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy), about sending me a rudder post of pine wood, a steering-oar of juniper, and a rudder-rest of ebony for the poop of your humble servant’s sea-going galley. Moreover, it is your humble servant’s poop. It is good if the lord (may he live, be prosperous and healthy) takes note.
If only we wrote memos or emails like that today. The astute reader may have noticed the egalitarian thread running through this note. Another example this Egyptian virtue, along with a dash of altruism, may be found in the letter of a landlord writing home (from another location) to the servants and others concerning some food shortages that have come to his notice:
Lest you be angry about this, look here … I’m responsible for everything so that it should be said: ‘To be half alive is better than dying outright’. Now it is only real hunger that should be termed hunger since they have started eating people here. and none are given such generous rations as I give you. Until I come back home to you, you should comport yourselves with stout hearts.
22 May, 2013
One of my arguments in The Sacred Economy, at least in the chapter called ‘On Fluid Bodies: Clans, Households, and Patrons,’ is that the ancient Near Eastern clan included both human beings and domestic animals in a continuum. I base this on the ‘bestiality’ laws, which assume such continuity, since they appear within the framework of what are called ‘incest’ laws. ‘Incest’ here includes both blood and non-blood human relations, as well as your expected sheep, goat, cow, pig, and dog.
Some more evidence has come to light, from the method of recording in the late Uruk period (late fourth millennium). There, clay tablets list rural and estate labourers, distinguishing between male and female, age groups (children are ‘womb-sucklers’), and their groupings. The curious thing is that exactly the same method is used for recording animals, down to the common term for ‘herd’.
So where were the boundaries? A stronger one was between ruling class human beings and those who tilled the soil and herded the sheep and goats. But the most noticeable boundary was between wild animals and domesticated animals-humans. The clan certainly did not include those wild types, unpredictable as they were and outside the bounds of what counted as part of the tribe.