Was Comcast in the copper business four millenia ago?
March 8, 2015 8:32 AM   Subscribe

The British Museum's artifacts include this Babylonian customer service complaint from 1750 B.C., expressing sentiments we can all sympathize with nearly four millenia later.

Cuneiform was developed in Mesopotamia between 3500 and 3000 BC, initially as pictographs, which evolved into the more-familiar abstract form. It was deciphered by George Smith (who discovered and translated the Epic of Gilgamesh) and Henry Rawlinson in the 19th century.

Somewhere between half a million and two million cuneiform tablets have been excavated in modern times, but fewer than 100,000 have been translated.

In 1999, the Digital Hammurabi Project (PDF) began working on procedures for 3D-scanning cuneiform tablets and developing a standard encoding for cuneiform text to aid in translating these as-yet-unread tablets. As a result of their efforts, cuneiform was added to Unicode in 2005.
posted by Blue Jello Elf (37 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
Digital cuneiform? This is going to end in Snow Crash, just you watch.

(For real, though, nice post!)
posted by dismas at 8:39 AM on March 8, 2015 [19 favorites]


Wonder if it worked and he ever got his copper?
posted by octothorpe at 9:23 AM on March 8, 2015 [5 favorites]


If you wish to order copper ingots, please press snake
If you wish to recover a messenger from enemy territory, please press sword
If you wish to complain about a product or service, please press donkey
posted by spitbull at 9:26 AM on March 8, 2015 [120 favorites]


I worked on (continue to work on, very sporadically) a modernisation of the Cuneiform Digital Palæography project at the British Museum as part of my MA. The Github repo in that link contains a Vagrant virtual machine (and Ansible playbooks to make it work), which will give you a fully working, searchable frontend for the tablets the BM has in storage, as well as others. The heart of the project is a collection of over 11,000 images of the tablets themselves, with associated metadata.

This is very much a work in progress, and the images and metadata only represent a small fraction of the BM's holdings (they have over 130k tablets/fragments in storage) and of what the department of the Middle East and other Assyriologists know about them.

The best thing about working there was the place itself – I once wandered in blearily on a summer morning, paused, and thought to myself "Well, you just walked right past the Rosetta Stone without giving it so much as a second glance. Have a little think about that". Also, I was actually working in the Arched Room, where many of the tablets are stored, and in which the guest book goes back to the late 18th century (IIRC). The trays visible in that image hold tablets and fragments.
posted by urschrei at 9:31 AM on March 8, 2015 [64 favorites]


Interesting post, thanks.

I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

I will henceforth be ending all my customer complaints this way.
posted by billiebee at 9:39 AM on March 8, 2015 [52 favorites]


I would love to read every cuneiform tablet, the ancients wrote.
posted by Oyéah at 9:47 AM on March 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


I love this. Years ago in art history class the teacher bemoaned that so many records about grain and cattle were left behind instead of precious artworks. As a records manager, I found it interesting because these ancient records informed daily life, and that it's often the banal that people really care to record.
posted by Calzephyr at 9:49 AM on March 8, 2015 [13 favorites]


Indeed did my manservant Baal-Anit wait from the moment of high noon as directed until the hour of long shadow for your worker to arrive to make repairs upon the semaphore tower, only to be unmet by him. Nor did he leave the appointed spot except for one moment to feed his donkey, whereupon he found a tablet inscribed with the message "Sorry we missed you, please contact our master to reschedule your appointment." I am sorely aggrieved because I have not had use of this semaphore for nearly a month, causing me to miss many important messages from my agents as well as the All-Assyria Chariot Chamionships results. I demand a thousand dinari in recompense or I will see the Army of Ur descend upon thy house!
posted by briank at 9:56 AM on March 8, 2015 [73 favorites]


Somewhere between half a million and two million cuneiform tablets have been excavated in modern times, but fewer than 100,000 have been translated.

I once read a rough reckoning by an archeologist who guessed that something in the order of 100 million cuneiform tablets have survived til today, with 99% of them still buried. The oft-asked question, "can we fully understand a civilization by its receipts?", will one day have an answer.
posted by Thing at 10:04 AM on March 8, 2015 [12 favorites]


So, cuneiform tablets often (?) start with that kind of opening - "Tell A that B sends the following message." These things are often ritualized so maybe nobody thought about it, but I wonder who the imperative ("tell") is directed to - a scribe/literate person reading the tablet out to the recipient? Or to the tablet itself?
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:11 AM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Tell that orb of befouled goat flesh the payment is late, by two sunsets if I receive not the silver, a great wailing shall rise in his household, as I will no longer pleasure his wives.

Narduk al Simitar
posted by Oyéah at 10:20 AM on March 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


I wonder who the imperative ("tell") is directed to

I'm no Babylonian scholar, but it seems like that's a good way to ensure the message gets across regardless of whose hands the tablet ends up in. It's sort of like having an address and a return address on the envelope.
posted by Dr. Send at 10:42 AM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


I'm told that there are many, many complaints to and about this Ea-Nasir guy. He apparently had an enormous copper scam going and a lot of people got very angry with him, so it's hilarious to think that we still know about him and his underhandedness, four thousand years later. He was that bad.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 10:44 AM on March 8, 2015 [68 favorites]


I happen to agree with this reddit thread that we should use this literally ancient customer service complaint as the template for all of our contemporary customer service complaints, because some things really do never change. That kind of continuity of human experience over actual millennia just really amuses and pleases me.
posted by yasaman at 11:04 AM on March 8, 2015 [13 favorites]


To hear this message in Babylonian, please press Funny Hat
posted by spitbull at 11:15 AM on March 8, 2015 [7 favorites]


If you want to read more about Ea-Nasir, you can read about him here, in the 1960 academic text, Foreign Trade in Old Babylonia as Revealed by Texts from Southern Mesopotamia by W. F. Leemans.
posted by Kattullus at 11:38 AM on March 8, 2015 [13 favorites]


What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves 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, and that through enemy territory.
From this I gather that the Babylonians all spoke like Christopher Walken.
posted by jamaro at 12:24 PM on March 8, 2015 [33 favorites]



The oft-asked question, "can we fully understand a civilization by its receipts?", will one day have an answer.


I believe it - it's material culture in action. Old Sears catalogue tell us so much about the last 120 years already.
posted by Calzephyr at 12:25 PM on March 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


Worst job in the ancient world: postal carrier delivering the cuneiform edition of the Sears catalog.
posted by horsewithnoname at 1:55 PM on March 8, 2015 [8 favorites]


I wonder who the imperative ("tell") is directed to

I'd wager what makes it odd is that "tell" as the translated meaning is a general approximation of its usage, rather than a firm definition that one can reliably infer grammatical rules, but I'm just guessing.

"Tell" could be interpreted as being directed to the reader coming "from" the tablet, or may not be exactly be in the form of a command at all, but could just as easily be interpreted as an symbol that would work in these cases as sort of a "subject" heading or a form of notice/announcement of the content that allows for quick identification of the type of information on the tablet by scribes and recipients. It would be interesting to see if there were patterns found where they used different 'starting symbols' for different kinds of communication, for example, one symbol for business related communication, one for official messages from governments, one for indicating lists and inventories, etc. With so many tablets going around from person to person and accumulating over time, one might expect scribes and administrators to perhaps attempt to make a very basic way to help catalog, store, and retrieve tablets worth keeping. Creating such an innovation and bringing it into common use in a region could be easier than one might expect - IIRC scribes were few and in demand, and even without a set of 'official' standards and uniform schooling, over generations, some clever scribe's rather helpful idea for such a quick identifying marking system using existing, well known pictographs with a vaguely related meaning might be lucky enough to become popular among a group of teachers and scribes and become a widely accepted practice.

Of course, to actually see if this or other innovations happened in the way I proposed, thousands, if not tens of thousands more tablets would have to be cataloged, dated as accurately as possible, then cross referenced by date, region, and political events (new rulers, shifts in power/invasions) to see evidence of these methods and possible 'double meanings' being introduced and accepted. It doesn't seem like a big leap for a civilization that has come up with a written language that already extensively categorizes things/people/places/concepts by symbolic representation to then begin to use what they already have at had to catalog the written materials themselves.
posted by chambers at 2:41 PM on March 8, 2015


There was a recent news story about a collection of tablets from Iraq that was relevant to my interests for a couple of reasons, amongst which was that they had notations in Aramaic. We have very few examples of Aramaic from that period because (we think) a lot of it was written on things like papyrus or parchment that wasn't well-preserved. So basically, the annotations on some cuneiform tablets (e.g., spelling a name out in Hebrew/Aramaic letters) has, all by itself, significantly increased the corpus of information we have to work from. In contrast, we literally have laundry lists written on cuneiform tablets - tens of thousands of things that are only interesting in the aggregate.

So there's this whole Levantine civilisation, including the culture that produced the Bible, and most of it is undocumented. Lots of people thought that the Bible must have been produced in Babylon or by scribes from Babylon, because there was so little evidence for literacy along the Mediterranean coast. Now we know that there were literate people from that region because they cared about whether , e.g., their names were spelled correctly in their own alphabet. Such a little discovery with such huge ramifications.

Anyway, look at our own civilisation and how we record things. We print books on acidic paper that falls apart in decades. We record things on DVDs that have an unknown life, but will probably be unreadable long before then. What information will survive from our own age, presuming there are humans around to read it? There'll be stone inscriptions (e.g., tombstones), some recopied texts (presumably) and ... that's it. A vast silence.

So that's why I've created a Kickstarter to copy Wikipedia onto clay tablets, the world's only proven long-term storage mechanism. Early supporters will receive their own stylus and bag of clay to help contribute annotations ...
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:04 PM on March 8, 2015 [28 favorites]


Of the many tablets, the ones marked "b u ss th ee d" were the most puzzling. Proverbs, shopping lists, itemization of deeds of the long deceased? We may never know...
posted by smidgen at 4:30 PM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


"As to the gold about which I wrote you, send me now quickly during this summer [.... ] before your messenger reach me, gold in abundance, as much as is available."

-Letter from Kadashman Enlil I, king of Babylon, to Amenhotep III.

Different time and place but interesting.
This is a great resource. Thanks for posting it.
posted by clavdivs at 4:45 PM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


I saw this image somewhere the other day without much context and as I am currently rereading Snow Crash and have recently started dating a fine gentleman who has also read that wonderful tome several times, I was quite delighted to be able to post said pic to his Facebook wall. Yay for ancient customer service complaints and modern cyberpunk for bringing two nerds closer together.

I also recently showed him the ways of the blue so I'm even more extra excited this showed up here.

Hi boo! Pay your $5 so you can comment!
posted by sio42 at 4:46 PM on March 8, 2015 [3 favorites]


So apparently Ea-Nasir's house in Ur was excavated in the 30s. I gather that's where most of these letters to him come from. He was a trader who sailed to Dilmun (probably where modern Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait are today) to purchase copper. I find this interesting because from my meager understanding of ancient Mesopotamian civilization, Dilmun was considered to be a holy land, a sort of paradise (some academics consider Dilmun to be the original basis for the idea of the Garden of Eden). Now, I'm not able to access the mindset of Mesopotamians four thousand years ago, but it's interesting to consider that someone as mundane as a seafaring merchant could be sailing between his home city (Ur, which has mythic resonance today, of course) and Eden. To get copper. That's quite amazing to me.
posted by Kattullus at 4:47 PM on March 8, 2015 [9 favorites]


Trade culture!

"Most of the evidence though - archeological and geological - seems to suggest that Magan was part of Oman. One Sumerian tablet, for example, dating from 2300 B.C., describes "Dilmun and Magan" as "countries beyond the lower sea," and there is no longer much doubt that Dilmun, which for centuries acted as middleman in the copper trade between Sumer and Magan, is Bahrain ..."

I'm searching for Tin sources.
posted by clavdivs at 6:48 PM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, cuneiform tablets often (?) start with that kind of opening - "Tell A that B sends the following message."

HELO mx.google.mesopotamia
MAIL FROM: baal@facetablet.com
RCPT TO: achaemenid@assyria.net
DATA
Subject: Copper Shipment Issues
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="Sumero-Akkadian Cuneiform"
blah blah blah
.
QUIT
posted by kjs3 at 7:08 PM on March 8, 2015 [11 favorites]


Ur actually Wurartu, so hard to say with those seventeen Armenian vowels, that westerners just called it Ur, (according to my Armenian historian buddy.)
posted by Oyéah at 7:24 PM on March 8, 2015 [1 favorite]


Joe in Australia: “Anyway, look at our own civilisation and how we record things. We print books on acidic paper that falls apart in decades. We record things on DVDs that have an unknown life, but will probably be unreadable long before then. What information will survive from our own age, presuming there are humans around to read it? There'll be stone inscriptions (e.g., tombstones), some recopied texts (presumably) and ... that's it. A vast silence.”

Which reminds me distinctly of what Thucydides observed concerning architecture on the tenth page of The Peloponnesian War four hundred years before the common era:

"Suppose, for example, that the city of Sparta were to become deserted and that only the temples and foundations of the buildings remained, I think that future generations would, as time passed, find it very difficult to believe that the place had really been as powerful as it was represented to be. Yet the Spartans occupy two-fifths of the Peloponnese and stand at the head not only of the whole Peloponnese itself but also of numerous allies beyond its frontiers. Since, however, the city is not regularly planned and contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence, but is simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way, its appearances would not come up to expectation. If, on the other hand, the same thing were to happen to Athens, one would conjecture from what met the eye that the city had been twice as powerful as in fact it is."
posted by koeselitz at 1:04 AM on March 9, 2015 [10 favorites]


jamaro: "From this I gather that the Babylonians all spoke like Christopher Walken."

Oh man, now it's impossible to not hear this in his voice.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 4:48 AM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


From this I gather that the Babylonians all spoke like Christopher Walken.

Unfortunately, any sense of tone you get from this is about 95% the choices of the translator. For all we know, the complaints of Ea-Nasir's customers were written in a style that was considered annoying l33t cunif0rm em0ji.
posted by straight at 2:42 PM on March 9, 2015


The recurrent number 1080 (pounds of copper) is interesting and it appears documents were stored in the "temple of Samas" Which suggests copy/inscription services and a repository of various documents, which apparently encompasses the complaint itself.
I think it's an indictment or summons for arbitration for whack copper.
posted by clavdivs at 4:07 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


My reading indicates that temples were used as "official" repositories across the Near East, and perhaps elsewhere. The temple administration were trustees for the temple assets and there were all sorts of complicated financial arrangements where they received, bestowed, or leased income from assets without the underlying assets changing hands. I think this naturally led the temple administrators to become intermediaries for other things, particularly those dealing with infants or when there was a financial dispute. There are fascinating parallels with the role of the Church in England before the Reformation; there's probably a good thesis for somebody in that.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:30 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


Everett Backstrom: archaeologist.

I am ay
My son in law has gone monotheistic and moved the capital into the DESERT.
How long does that last.
The sculptor made it out but why hide the work.
The young king got out.
But what about the library?
Why leave grandpas' old letters around?

But the better question is what records were taken.

I see Thebes, angry Thebes.
posted by clavdivs at 7:06 PM on March 9, 2015 [1 favorite]


clavdivs: "The recurrent number 1080 (pounds of copper) is interesting"

Babylonians used a sexagesimal (base-60) number system. 60 is divisible by a bunch of different numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 30, so it's quite useful as a base number.

1080 is 60*6*3. It's one of those numbers that keep cropping up in computing and related fields too, by the way, like 1080 lines vertically in an HD video signal, while the lower res 720 lines version is 360 lines (or one third) less. 360 degrees in a circle is also based on a sexagesimal base. SD TV is 720x486, which is almost 720x480 (DVDs and DV are actually 720x480), again, 12x60 * 8x60. Old floppy disks were 360kB (single density), 720kB (double density) or 1.44MB (high density). Modem speeds were 2400 bps, 9600 bps, 14400 bps, etc.

(This is where you start wondering about some sort of ancient Babylonian conspiracy surviving into the modern day.)
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:47 AM on March 10, 2015 [7 favorites]


Joakim Ziegler, The Brotherhood of The Smooth Numbers has taken note of your comments and wishes to speak with you.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:00 AM on March 10, 2015 [2 favorites]


60x6=360x3=1080
I'm thinking the 'x3' (3) is the depositors share and the '60x6' is tax or temples cut in this case 360 lbs. of some snicklefritz copper.
posted by clavdivs at 12:56 PM on March 10, 2015


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