Where did ancient Mesopotamians go to the toilet?

We don’t seem to know, for, as Marc van de Mieroop points out: ‘ Archaeological evidence of latrines in houses is lacking, and public toilets do not seem to hаvе existed either’ (The Ancient Mesopotamian City, p. 159). Out in the village-communes that would not have been a great problem, but in what are often called ‘cities’, it was a different matter entirely. In the rivers and canals? But that was also drinking water.


Fluid bodies in the ancient Near East: animal-human continuities

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’.

Late Uruka

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.

Ruling class lament, or, redefining ‘crisis’

A staple of ancient Near Eastern study is the pattern of imperial and cultural collapses. Thus, the Sumerian expansion, running through from the revolution of Uruk to the elaborate and rather extraordinary organizational achievements of “The Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad” (Ur III), eventually collapses around 2000 BCE, due to a variety of causes. To continue our sample from a large collection, in the sixteenth century a “dark age” descends upon the ANE, and then later again another such age at the close of the second millennium – the Hittites’ modest achievements also collapse, as does the Creto-Mycenaean sphere at about the same time in the thirteenth century. By the first millennium it is the turn of Assyria, the Neo-Babylonians, and then the Persians. This narrative in various forms is one of the staples of ANE history (going back to Herodotus), with a consistent pattern of fluorescence and collapse, or expansion and contraction, as one despot after another attempts a phallic-like extension of his powers, penetrating his neighbors and holding them under his seminal splurge, only to find that the rush of blood does not last forever.

We need to ask: collapse and crisis for whom? From the perspective of the ruling class it is indeed collapse and the ensuing period is a prolonged time of crisis. The sources of wealth have been removed, the palaces and temples destroyed, the estate system or patterns of tribute and exchange have been dismantled, and power has been lost. In these contexts, the archaeological record begins to show signs of “crisis architecture,” “termination rituals,” and “calamity feasts,” in which the desperate rulers use up their last reserves to appease furious gods. At times, dispossessed elites do indeed produce remarkable works – the collection of texts in the Hebrew Bible is an excellent example. Yet, from the perspective of the village-communes, of the subsistence and estate laborers, of socially determining clan households, a “collapse” actually means a blessed relief from various means of extraction. We can hardly expect the peasants, laborers, and common people to sit back and wait for such much-desired collapses to happen. From the Habiru through to archaeological signals of urban destruction by the town’s own exploited class, they were more than keen to hasten the demise. Semi-nomadic pastoralists too were ready to join in, for throughout Mesopotamian history their annual and usually “peaceful” migration “could be transformed into aggressive campaigns if the power of the centralized state was weak.” The outcome was highly desirable: no longer do the young men and women have to work periodically or permanently on the palatine estates; no longer does the despised usurer-merchant-tax-collector call with his thugs to collect a debt slave or take a portion of the herd or some of the girls for his sexual usage; no longer do the temple and palace suck away the foodstuffs needed for subsistence survival. These periods were also ones of innovation: horse and chariot in the sixteenth century “dark age,” for instance, or iron technology at the end of the second millennium.

Too many secondary works unwittingly take the perspective of the ruling classes, who produced most of the records that skew our efforts at reconstruction. A case in point is the lament in the Erra Epic. Set in Babylon and during the “crisis” of the late second millennium, it purports to reflect on general chaos and collapse. Nothing could be further from the truth, for it is a lament of a ruling class at the end of its run.

He who did not die in battle, will die in the epidemic

He who did not die in the epidemic, the enemy will rob him

He whom the enemy has not robbed, the thief will thrash him

He whom the thief did not thrash, the king’s weapon will overcome him

He whom the king’s weapon did not overcome, the prince will kill him

He whom the prince did not kill, the storm god will wash away

He whom the storm god did not wash away, the sun god will carry him away

He who has left for the countryside, the wind will sweep him away

He who has entered his own house, a demon will strike him

He who climbed up a high place, will die of thirst

He who went down to a low place, will die in the waters

You have destroyed high and low place alike!

The return of ‘the great one of the peg’

An ancient Mesopotamia, the transfer of part of a dwelling (never a whole dwelling) was accompanied by much brouhaha. All manner of officials prepared for and attended the event, barley was tossed over the floor, wet clay tablets were incised, the grog flowed … Yet the most important figure present was the enigmatic ‘Great One of the Peg’. It seems as though he or she had something to do with a cone, which may or may not have been hammered in a wall. On one level, this is where we really reach the limits of our ability to imagine what the hell went on in many cases in the ANE. On another level, we really need to recover the ‘Great One of the Peg’. Not quite sure what this person would do, but that matters little.

Sheep and goats

What is the dominant institutional form of the ancient economy? Trade, tribute, plunder, debt? Wrong on all counts. Given that 95% of people were engaged in agriculture, that’s where we need to look. But did those entrepreneurial farmers produce surpluses of wool, meat, milk and grains to flog off to the highest seller, as Adam Smith would have us believe and a goodly number of archaeologists? Not at all. They were more interested in subsistence survival, which was the dominant institutional form.

Apart from grains, animals were the key. The typical herd had 67% sheep and 33% goats. Why? Sheep produce wool and meat in high volume, but they are less versatile in adverse conditions. Goats, on the other hand, are very versatile, keeping their body weight with a third of the regular diet and able to deal with water shortages and temperature extremes. And they are pretty good value for meat, milk and fibres. The mix ensured that if one part of the herd picked up a disease, the other part would still be there until the numbers return. They both breed well. The herd was culled regularly at all ages to keep its size manageable and the herd healthy. Surpluses? A small surplus in a good year was kept over for tough times that would definitely follow.

As Marx pointed out in the third volume of capital, specific items may turn up in different modes of production. But their function and relation to other items is very different. This feature shows up in all sorts of contexts: medieval Europe, Russia until the early 20th century, the early European settlers in North America, pre-Ottoman and Ottoman times, and many more. Imagine my surprise, then, when I came across a herd in Transylvania last week. The sheep and goats mingled with one another, were multi-coloured, and were in a ratio of 67-33%. It left me wondering about the best approach to animal husbandry in the quicksands of economic crisis.

Interest rates in ancient Mesopotamia

How was interest for loans set in the ancient Near East? It is difficult to imagine a situation in which interest ‘rates’ are not intimately connected to the workings of a capitalist ‘market’, but the overwhelming evidence indicates that they were set by royal decree at 20% per annum – pretty much for the entire history of the ANE. This came to be seen as the proper rate, decreed by the gods. It is best described as a customary amount rather than a commercial one. To be sure, there were variations, at times as high as 60% per month (720% per annum),  at times lower, but the factors here were extra-economic. A major factor was the desire, by the small number of landlords and the state, to ensure indentured labor (as I pointed out earlier). Another version was the ‘loan’ as an advance payment on an everyday item, such as ivory, a peacock, a monkey, or some common metal like gold – which functioned in a centripetal fashion, to be brought in to enhance the prestige of the potentate in question. In other words, interest rates were socially determined.