Trade and contraband in ancient Assyria
Whenever I am asked what I do for a living, I have to confess: I read people’s private papers. In my defence, I have to say that any secrecy on these papers was lifted a few thousand years ago. These are not even made of paper but were shaped out of clay 4,000 years ago by travelling merchants along the roads of Mesopotamia and Anatolia.
Around 1900 BC, the kingdom of Kanesh and the city-state of Ashur, in modern-day Turkey and Iraq respectively, enjoyed a deep and special partnership against a backdrop of trade agreements and the circulation of goods and people.
Out of sight, out of mind?
Old Assyrian merchants, as we call them, exported textiles and tin to Anatolia to be exchanged for silver, gold and copper. This was one of the first long-distance trading enterprises. To facilitate this trade, it was common for merchants to move from Ashur to Kanesh. There they settled more or less permanently in the lower town, forming what we could recognise as an expat community.
To sustain their long-distance activities, the merchants needed to communicate. 4,000 years ago, the most efficient and fastest information sharing devices were inscribed tablets. Shaped out of clay by hand, tablets were impressed with a stylus while the clay was still soft. Once dried out, they were wrapped in a sheet of clay bearing the names of the sender and the addressee – in other words, an envelope.
Archaeologists have found 23,000 of these tablets, from a period of about 150 years. The many letters merchants sent and received offer us a glimpse of what life would have been like in those days. Having spent the last year studying these tablets, I have got to read some of their stories and it is always a thrill to sit down in the Museum’s study room and to walk down memory lane, albeit further down than I usually would.
First person accounts
What I love most about Old Assyrian letters is their spontaneity. The introduction formula is kept to a minimum, ‘from so-and-so to so-and-so say this’, then comes the message in the first person. The message typically contains instructions from one merchant to his trading partner about the forthcoming shipment: the types and quantities of goods, their unit price and the applicable exchange rates, practical arrangements for the caravan and its staff in terms of accommodation and subsistence, even including the fodder for the donkeys.
Sometimes, the message has a more peculiar substance. While reading a letter of instructions sent by Buzazu to his trading partners, I discovered that he said:
Let them [the transporters] bring the tin via the narrow track [smuggling route] if it is clear. If not, let them make small packets of my tin and introduce them gradually into Kanesh, concealed in their underwear.
In this letter Buzazu actually cancels the smuggling operation after the situation had changed and was no longer favourable. Yet we are left wondering about the hows and whys of trade and contraband, not to mention the practicalities of concealing ingots of metal in one’s underwear.
Rule makers and rule breakers
The agreement struck between Kanesh and Ashur regulated the activities of the trade in terms of authorised or prohibited goods as well as in terms of taxes to be applied to transactions. For example, iron – a rare and expensive metal costing up to 7 times the price of gold – and the lapis lazuli extracted from distant Afghanistan were sold under state monopoly.
Mirroring these regulations, a system of contraband was set up, either to avoid paying the relevant taxes or in order to trade restricted products. Thanks to the letters they wrote, we know of some of the taxes Old Assyrian merchants were supposed to pay: transport and import taxes upon arrival in Kanesh, tolls and duties on goods and persons en route and an export tax upon departure from Ashur.
Where there is a will there is a way, and for smugglers this was the ‘narrow track’. Going through the mountainous paths of Anatolia, merchants got around some of the taxes by taking a detour away from authorised routes and checkpoints. Lacking the protection offered on official routes, the journey was more perilous, exposed to wild beasts, highway thieves and a harsh climate.
Smuggling also meant fooling the customs system either by not declaring taxable goods or by making a partial declaration. Along with the underwear trick elaborated by Buzazu, the merchants’ letters describe various ruses, whether that meant paying off the guards or hiring mules among the locals who would have known the place inside out.
As lucrative as it may have been, smuggling was still illegal and convicted smugglers would have faced sanctions ranging from cash penalties to house arrest and jail. We know of the case of the merchant Pushu-ken, whose house was raided and found with smuggled goods, leading to a jail sentence for contraband. Despite the risks, merchants remained keen to smuggle, as we can read in Ishtar-pilah’s plea to Pushu-ken:
You are my colleague! Just as you send an order for your own goods to be smuggled, do also send one for my goods.
A family affair
Funnily enough, Pushu-ken happens to have been the father of Buzazu. Old Assyrian trade was a family business and we can still read the correspondence between Buzazu and his relatives: his mother Lamassi, his sister Ahaha, his brothers Sueyya, Ikun-pasha and Ashur-muttabbil.
Sueyya, the eldest son, grew up and went to school in Ashur while Pushu-ken had already settled a thousand miles away in Kanesh to oversee the activities of the family firm. One of the most touching letters was written by the young Sueyya to his father, boasting about his learning of cuneiform and demonstrating it with neat and careful writing.
The tablets written by Old Assyrian merchants are their private papers, recounting in the first person what they did, what they wish they had done and what they shall do, in life and business alike. So whenever I am asked what I do for a living, I have to confess: I listen to people’s accounts of their lives in their own words. I read the tablets they wrote 4,000 years ago, fascinated by the stories of the life they lived. And what a life they led!
Find out more in this curator’s corner video: