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Women in Commerce in Mesopotamia

By Anita Fattori, PhD candidate in Social History, University of São Paulo.


One day, on a remote tour in the ancient Mesopotamia, I come across a group of letters that I am quite intrigued by. I begin this text by inviting the reader to observe, for a brief moment, two small excerpts from two clay letters and ask themselves: who sent them?


“You sent me about 80 grams of gold to store barley, but your representatives haven't done the job yet. Therefore, our report on this activity did not reach you.”

(RA 59, 159, 25)


“As for the textiles Aššur-malik brought you earlier: why didn't you send me the silver equivalent of the textiles?”

(VS 26, 42)


The wealth of documents excavated from the territory of Mesopotamia is remarkable, with emphasis on the clay tablets (as in the image on the left), which can reach the sum of one million units, according to some specialists. The writing was formed by wedge-shaped impressions on these tablets, hence its name: cuneiform, a script that was used for more than three millennia. The excerpts shown above were written in the Akkadian language, in one of its oldest variants, called the Paleo-Assyrian dialect. This term, in addition to designating the culture and name of the language especially developed in the Ashur region, also corresponds to the chronological definition of the period, which extends approximately from 2025 to 1809 BCE.



Ashur, located on the west bank of the Tigris River in present-day Iraq, stood out as a central city in a long-distance commercial network; at one of the ends of this network, his most extensive and regular relationship took place in Anatolia, with an emphasis on Kanesh, in present-day Turkey. Merchants, united in a logic of family firms and commercial partnerships, left, organized in caravans of donkeys, carrying fabrics and tin towards Anatolia. There, in return, they received silver and gold so that they could reinvest in their ventures. Letters, therefore, were essential for managing the business. They connected merchants – both those on the move and those who settled for long periods in Kanesh – with their families and partners who remained in Ashur.


Now, armed with more information about these letters, I suggest that you, reader, retrace your path to the documents and return to the question posed at the beginning of our journey: who was the sender (or senders) of these letters ? If I could guess, I'd say you thought the sender was a kind of male merchant or perhaps a peddler figure. In case I'm right, I would like to say that your first impression is wrong. The letters above were sent by a woman.


Among the thousands of tablets found in Kanesh, a group of letters stands out. About a few hundred of them have in their header – as senders or recipients – names of women. These women, wives, daughters or sisters of merchants, were part of the domestic unit and produced the textiles taken to be sold in Anatolia, receiving silver in exchange and giving rise to the family business.



When we think of women in Mesopotamia, we tend to imagine figures like the goddess Ishtar, popularly believed to have a dangerous sexuality; or perhaps we fantasize about the orientalising moods of women in a harem. These images are a reflection of a historiographical production that, for many years, was concerned with highlighting specific female presences – goddesses and elite women – as well as fostering discussions about the uses and conditions of women's bodies, with reference, for example, to motherhood and to prostitution.


In this sense, this group of letters presents us with an everyday reality (almost 4,000 years ago!) of common women, often ignored by historians, and allows us to broaden the focus on this social universe, showing that the sphere of action of these women was not restricted to the production of textiles or the maintenance of the domestic unit. The Paleo-Assyrian context allows us to see, when observing a broader field of action of these women within the family and commercial context of the period, at least that such borders do not exist in the way we would suppose.

As we can see in the first two excerpts, these letters reveal a plurality of these women's actions. They were sent by Lamassī to her husband, a prestigious merchant, Pushū-kēn. In the first letter, she manages the gathering of barley, the main grain in the Mesopotamian diet. Then, in addition to the responsibility for textile production, she charges her husband for the payment in silver for a textile shipment sent earlier. This silver could be reinvested in commerce, such as reshipping textiles and doing business with other merchants. Even within its field of possibilities, Lamassī could act, for example, as a creditor of small amounts of silver. Not only were women in charge of business matters, but in case of legal problems, they even represented their husbands before the local authorities.


In these letters, two other excerpts shed light on particular aspects of social relations in this context. In one of them, Lamassī recalls an expected social role for her husband in order to mobilize him to return and watch his daughter's delivery to the priesthood. In another, she reveals a possible concern with a social status when asking him about the house reform:


“Show yourself as a man of honour, come and fulfil your obligations. Place our daughter in the bosom of the god Aššur” (RA 59, 159, 25).


“Since you left, Salim-Aḫum has already renovated the house twice! When can we finally do the same?” (VS 26 42:30-37).


By bringing to light information about the daily lives of women, we are proposing to revisit interpretive models that tend to lock these women up in spaces that do not correspond to their social reality. Exploring the place of this group considered subordinate in a specific context leads us not only to a reflection on the construction of investigations about women in historiographic research in general, but, above all, to open a space for dialogue with our conceptions in the present.


Tags: #women #traders #Assyria #Kanesh #OrientalAntiquity #Mesopotamia

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