On exhibit in the British Museum in London lies a very special ancient clay tablet. The 3,766-year-old artifact dates back to Mesopotamia – specifically, to a city-state known as Ur. And etched into its face, the tablet has a message – one that fascinatingly expresses its inscriber’s profound displeasure.
It was a British man called Sir Leonard Woolley who, at the start of the 1900s, most famously investigated the site of Ur. And as a result of his meticulous means of research, Woolley is thought of as a pivotal figure within contemporary archaeology. The archaeologist made multiple discoveries at Ur and helped construct a clearer image of what the city-state was once like.
Ur was a crucial place within the Sumer civilization, which itself stands as among the first ever mass societies in history. Sumer itself lay in the south of Mesopotamia, in the southern part of what we today know as Iraq. And experts believe permanent settlements first sprung up in Sumer between 5500 B.C. and 4000 B.C.
It is thought that Sumerian society really started to take shape, though, between 4000 B.C. and 3100 B.C. This time is known as the Uruk period, and it saw the land becoming more urbanized. Indeed, towards the end of this era, Sumer had split into multiple city-states.
Canals were constructed and boundaries were raised to distinguish between these city-states. Furthermore, each of these places had a patron deity whom the population would worship in a particular temple built in their honor. And, at the same time, kings or governors known respectively as lugals and ensis ran the cities.
Now although some believe the earliest cities emerged in India or China, it is actually widely held that the Sumerian cities were the first. Eridu is reckoned to be the oldest of these, and it can still be seen today as ruins. Meanwhile, about seven-and-a-half miles away from Eridu lies evidence of the city of Ur.
Ur flourished in the area now defined by modern Iraq’s Dhi Qar province. At one time, too, Ur stood by the waters of the Persian Gulf, although the coastline has since altered. Nowadays, therefore, you can find the remains of the city quite a distance away from the coast.
Back then, Ur was also divided into different districts, with people of specific professions living in the same areas as one another. Streets ran through the city, too, with clearings to allow for public assemblies. There is even evidence that Ur contained designs to aid in flood management.
Residents built homes in Ur with plaster and bricks made from mud. Larger structures, meanwhile, were shored up with asphalt. And it seems that the dead found their final resting places underneath houses, buried with objects such as weapons and cooking utensils.
When it came to military matters, a series of fortifications standing some 26 feet in height defended Ur. These ramparts lay at a slant, and some of the city’s buildings adjoined them. And in addition to these manmade defenses, the Euphrates river to the west added further security.
Fascinatingly for us in the present day, evidence of the city has survived through the millennia. And the Ziggurat of Ur is among the more impressive ruins of Ur that can be seen to this day. Ziggurats, for the record, were large structures constructed throughout Mesopotamia for religious purposes.
Construction of the Ziggurat of Ur was started by King Ur-Nammu for the sake of honoring Nanna, the Moon deity. Also known as Sîn, Nanna was the patron god of Ur, and he was believed specifically to look after shepherds.
By the time the ziggurat had been completed, King Ur-Nammu’s son, Shulgi, ruled Ur. What’s more, King Shulgi designated himself as a god, and under his tenure Ur grew significantly more powerful. So it was that by the end of Shulgi’s 48 years in control, Ur oversaw a large proportion of Mesopotamia.
A number of archaeological discoveries have suggested at the prosperity enjoyed by the city of Ur. Vast quantities of relics made from precious metals have been uncovered there, for instance – and these could only have made it to the city through trade networks. In fact, trade in general was one of the major factors contributing to Ur’s affluence.
Being a port on the Persian Gulf certainly helped ensure that Ur was a significant place of trade. The city in fact received goods from numerous locations around the world. And, indeed, a large part of the trade in the whole of Mesopotamia flowed through the port at Ur.
Interestingly, too, it has been suggested that Ur had a hierarchical society. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were people from other parts of the world who had been seized and put into slavery. Towards the top, meanwhile, figures such as priests enjoyed lives of considerable opulence.
There is even evidence of intricate legal and economic organization having existed in Ur. And the discovery of myriad artifacts bearing text supports this notion, for one. The Sumerians inscribed such texts in cuneiform, which is one of the oldest-known writing schemes.
The word cuneiform derives from the Latin cuneiformis, which roughly translates as “wedge-shaped.” What’s the connection here? Well, it relates to the wedge-shaped etchings that scribes long ago stamped into the clay slabs – and some of which still bear cuneiform.
Anywhere from 500,000 to two million cuneiform tablets have been discovered over the centuries. Of these, however, only between 30,000 and 100,000 have ever been publicly presented. Where can they be seen? Well, a great many museums contain extensive collections of such tablets, with the British Museum holding the most.
Which brings us back to the central part of our story. It is the British Museum, after all, that houses the previously mentioned special tablet – a relic expressing the annoyance of one particular ancient person named Nanni. Nanni, you see, carved out his disapproval to a merchant called Ea-Nasir – who it seems had provided him with the incorrect sort of copper. And the resulting tablet is now recognized as one of the first known recorded customer complaints.
Adolf Leo Oppenheim is the man responsible for having translated the text that is etched into this distinctive tablet. Oppenheim was, you see, a celebrated Assyriologist who was born and later studied in the Austrian capital, Vienna. It’s in fact been claimed that this eminent scholar studied cuneiform more than any other modern-day individual has done so.
Oppenheim’s expertise is also largely credited with having provided the basis for much of our present understanding of what life was like in Mesopotamia. For one thing, he served as the leading editor of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, which sought to take full stock of the Akkadian language. And he remained in this role until his death in 1974.
But let’s get back to the tablet whose special message we can be thankful to Oppenheim for translating. “What do you take me for that you treat somebody like me with such contempt?” a disgruntled Nanni wrote to Ea-Nasir. “I have sent… messengers… to collect the bag with my money [deposited with you]. But you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times.”
Nanni’s complaint had been inscribed in Akkadian – a long-lost language articulated in Mesopotamia between roughly 2800 B.C. and 500 A.D. In cuneiform, Akkadian was made up of about 600 word and syllable symbols. And it is thought that a lot of those symbols were pronounced in various different ways. Not that this probably mattered much to our irate ancient complainant.
“How have you treated me for that copper?” Nanni continued. “You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory.” And on top of that, Nanni provided a potential solution – one that worked for him, at least. “It is now up to you to restore [my money] to me in full,” he proclaimed.
Concluding, Nanni wrote, “Take cognizance that [from now on] I will not accept… any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall [from here on] select and take the ingots individually in my own yard. And I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.”
Nanni’s complaint first found itself in the media gaze back in 2016. However, it was then later posted to Reddit in 2018 – and has since gone viral. Indeed, more than 1,000 comments have been written in response to the post, which has also received over 64,000 upvotes.
Nanni’s message is, however, far from the only known complaint that was aimed at Ea-Nasir back in the day; it is in fact merely the longest and most detailed of a number of them. Yes, at least 12 other cuneiform complaints intended for the merchant’s eyes have also been discovered.
The tablets were uncovered in what is thought to have once been Ea-Nasir’s home. Each one was aimed at Ea-Nasir himself, and they were all written in particularly bitter tones. That’s right, the tablets are linked to one another by the specific irritation that they express.
Taken together, furthermore, the complaints paint a picture of who exactly Ea-Nasir was as a person. It seems that he was a prominent merchant within Ur who specialized in the large-scale trade of metal blocks. He also, evidence suggests, worked in the business of formed metal commodities as well as food and fabrics.
Ea-Nasir was, in addition, apparently part of an association of traders known as Alik Tilmun. This group centered in Dilmun – an area that stood in what is now Bahrain. And Dilmun was well located for business at the time, meaning many traders would have flocked there.
The picture that forms of the trader is fascinating. When starting out as a merchant, Ea-Nasir was evidently involved in trading practices on behalf of Ur’s royal residence. But while it seems that he was initially thought to be reliable, after some time he apparently started to spend more time in Dilmun – and some of his clients began to get annoyed.
As well as Nanni’s complaint, a cuneiform missive from a person called Arbituram has been found that was also intended for Ea-Nasir. And much as with Nanni, it seems that Arbituram had been swindled out of his rightful copper by the merchant. Arbituram wrote, “Why have you not given me the copper? If you do not give it, I will recall your pledges.”
After apparently then not having received a reply, Arbituram was naturally upset – and compelled to follow up with Ea-Nasir. “Why have you not given the copper to [my colleague]?” he carved into a tablet. “Be kind enough to give the copper.”
And yet another person, Imgur-Sin, had evidently reached exhaustion because of Ea-Nasir’s seemingly shoddy business practices. “In order that your heart shall not be troubled, give good copper to [my colleague],” Imgur-Sin wrote. “Do you not know how tired I am [of this]?”
A man by the name of Ilsu-ellatsu, meanwhile, is believed to have been one of Ea-Nasir’s professional associates. And it seems that he, too, had grown weary of Ea-Nasir’s poor conduct. Certainly, one tablet that appears to have been inscribed by Ilsu-ellatsu warns Ea-Nasir to behave. “Act in such a way that [the customer] will not become angry,” he wrote.
It is not known whether or not Ea-Nasir sent a response to any of these grievances. Based on the evidence of his bad business sense, though, it would come as no surprise to learn that he had not. But, that said, experts believe Ea-Nasir’s manner of working eventually got the better of him.
There are signs, you see, that Ea-Nasir’s prosperity eventually began to deteriorate. For example, his home, where the tablets had been discovered, was connected to the neighboring residence. And this fact would have considerably lessened the available space of his house.
Furthermore, it appears that Ea-Nasir was compelled to change the nature of his business dealings. He moved, in fact, into areas such as real estate and clothing. And these markets would have been notably less fruitful than copper trading.
So, Ea-Nasir, it would appear, treated his clients with contempt – and ultimately paid the price for it. It seems that he may have been forced out of the well-paying copper market because of his poor entrepreneurship. And he is even remembered for it almost four millennia later!