The Economy of Ancient Mesopotamia

Of the clay tablets that survive from Ancient Mesopotamia, many relate to details of economics and finance, which were crucial to the civilizations of the region for thousands of years. Unfortunately, even this considerable corpus does not give Assyriologists all the information that would be needed to conceptually reconstruct the entire economic structure of any Mesopotamian civilization. But nevertheless, the artefacts prove that trade, currency, and finance were all essential parts of Mesopotanian societies, both because of their contents and because of their abundance. They additionally suggest that a certain degree of economic standardization existed across different societies in the region, since procedural and record-keeping documents appear frequently all across Mesopotamia. Just as how transaction receipts are used today, this documentation must also have been helpful (if not crucial) to keeping the Mesopotamian economy streamlined and efficient, enabling proliferation and continuing growth centuries ahead of most other civilizations.

Bill of Workers' Labour and Salaries

Discovered in the ancient city of Umma along with over 30,000 other artefacts, this tablet contains information about workers’ employment and salaries from the 21st century B.C.E.. Itself indicative of a complex economic system, recording citizen’s earnings and line of work is also a prerequisite for further developments, including fair social programs. Especially in relation to programs aimed at food security and famine mitigation, this type of document thus represents one step along early progress towards what we would now call ‘equity’.

Tablet on the Allocation of Beer

Dating from around 3000 B.C.E., this early tablet records details concerning the allocation of beer, which was an essential commodity that was commonly used for payments in ancient Mesopotamia. It is unclear whether beer was distributed for payment or as part of a social program in this case, and it may have been a little of both. Either way, this type of resource distribution can be compared against the later use of silver as currency to outline how Mesopotamian systems of payment and distribution developed between 3000 and 2000 B.C.E. 

Record of Silver Expenditures

Found in the archive of the temple to the sun god Shamash in Sippar, Babylonia, this fragment records a payment made in silver by the temple: in other words, an ancient Mesopotamian expense receipt. It was found alongside hundreds of other tablets, many of which also record silver payments, at a time when silver was the default medium for payments overall. The standardization of this material as a currency is another example of a very well-developed economic system for its era, which would have increased streamlining and efficiency, in turn helping Mesopotamia grow and advance itself further.

Farm and Workshop Annual Balance Sheet

This spectacular tablet contains the annual financial details for a state-owned farm and basketry workshop, including workdays and descriptions, costs, and quantities of raw materials. It paints a picture of a highly-organized business that kept records not unlike how a modern company would. The time and effort required to create a tablet of this size would not have been insignificant, and the fact that scribes were employed to create such documentation for this and other enterprises highlights how methodical and central economic affairs were to ancient Mesopotamian societies.

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