Episode 12. Gojko Barjamovic: International trade: Transcript

0:13  JT

Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand. 

0:32  JT

It seems as though money has always made the world go round, even before money itself existed. Today we look at international trade and its social dimensions. What do we know about these ancient networks and the people who operated them?

0:49  JT

This episode illustrates several features that characterise the archaeology of the ancient Middle East. We don’t have material spread evenly from across history. Instead, we see certain times and places in great detail, and others only dimly, if at all. Often, our understanding is shaped by the accident of history and the accident of archaeology. A chance event preserves information, a chance discovery reveals it. And sometimes, what survives can speak volumes about what has not.

1:25  JT

Archaeological study of the ancient Middle East is a relatively young field. Our knowledge is constantly improving. What’s remarkable about today’s topic is just how much our knowledge has changed. And just how quickly. This is one of the things that make assyriology such a fascinating subject to study. Our guest skilfully controls a wealth of details to paint vivid images of much bigger pictures. He provides a wonderfully clear example of how much the ancient Middle East has to offer the wider study of human history.

2:01  JT

So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.

2:15  JT

Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.

2:20  GB

Thank you for having me.

2:21  JT

Can you tell us please: who are you and what you do?

2:26  GB

My name is Gojko Barjamovic. And I’m an assyriologist, which means that I work on ancient texts, and effectively lives, as they unfolded about 4000 years ago.

2:39  JT

We’re going to talk about trade. What specifically do we mean by trade here?

2:45  GB

Yes, I study trade. And by trade, I mean, a structured … a repetitive way of exchanging goods or services for something other of value. And the sources we have for that is really often on the margins of the written record that we assyriologists instinctively turn to. And so in order to understand trade, we have to combine written evidence, with archaeology, with visual records, and with scientific discoveries or scientific data, let’s call it. So by “archaeology”, I mean the thing that people mostly think of–dirt–but I also very much make use of landscape archaeology, satellite imagery, models of landscape movement, things like that, that can help me understand how people moved through time and space. The visual records will show me anything from the kind of vehicles that were in use, the animals, implements of various kinds. And finally, the scientific data might include things like archaeo-metallurgy, which allows us to trace the origin of certain metals to their sites of mining; might be ancient DNA that allows us to look at population mobility; strontium analyses of people’s teeth, that allows us to look at the mobility of individuals during their lifetime, or at least as long as the teeth are forming; might be dendrochronology, the counting of year rings and certain species of trees that allows us to nail down the chronology–and I can explain later why it’s really important for understanding trade–or maybe something like trace residue analyses, studying the scrapings, so to say, of the innards of ceramic vessels and other containers to see what they may have contained in the past.

4:40  JT

What was traded?

4:42  GB

Well, everything: services and goods; anything you can imagine. They traded in raw metals such as tin, copper, as well as wool. And most importantly, they traded in textiles. Now your sort of ordinary tea towels or handkerchiefs, mind you, but insanely expensive, luxurious textiles. In some cases for the really fine textiles, you could essentially purchase a house.

5:10  JT

Now you’re an expert in a particular area of assyriology that tells us about trade in incredible detail. Could you introduce us to that please?

5:21  GB

I’m specialised in one particular material and one particular time period for which our evidence is very rich. And this is a period called the Old Assyrian Colony Period. And it’s, you know, roughly 4000 years ago, give or take a century or two. And it’s focused on what is today northern Iraq and central Turkey. I focus particularly on one archaeological site, a place called Kültepe, which is very close to the modern day Turkish city of Kayseri, sort of capital of Cappadocia, the highlands of Turkey. One afternoon, about 3840 years ago, give or take a handful, a fire raged through that town. And it was probably the largest population centre in all of Turkey, and one of the largest cities of the world at the time.

6:16  GB

The people who had lived there had apparently been warned about the oncoming fire. We don’t know what the cause for it was, but we suspect of course, since clearly people had the chance to clear out their houses of valuables and most importantly, save their own lives, it was probably intentional burning by some enemy. But what these people could not bring with them were all their archival records. Because as I’m sure people who were listening to your podcast will know, cuneiform writing was tied to clay as a medium. These were heavy clay tablets that they often stored at least by the hundreds, and in many cases, even by the thousands, in their own private houses, and they could not move those. So those were left behind. The fire ran through the city and preserved these commercial archives for posterity.

7:05  GB

And so now, in more recent times, since World War Two, more or less, archaeologists have been working at this site, and have revealed the remarkable remains of this thriving Bronze Age city. We now know that that city was called Kanesh, and that it covered an area of at least 150 hectares, so 150 football fields. It consisted of an Acropolis, which had temples and palatial structures, as well as a surrounding Lower Town that had compact industrial and residential quarters. And the whole thing was enclosed, it seems, by a fortification wall.

7:44  GB

So most people who lived there were locals. We call them Anatolians, for the lack of a better word. They spoke a language that was sort of a dialect of Hittite. So this is an Indo-European language ultimately related to things like Greek and English and Russian. But in addition to those locals, there was a community of at least 500, sometimes up to 1000, men and women who were engaged in an extensive overland trade. The people who were running this trade came from far away. They came down from a city called Assur, which is located on the Tigris, modern day northern Iraq. And so they lived as sort of an expat community, commercial community, in Kanesh, and lived there under local law, but were allowed to maintain a semblance of their own community. And for instance, they had their own political and social institutions there. And internally, they could self regulate, had … they had their own mini parliament. It is their texts predominantly that were saved by the fire. Let’s say roughly 500 were written by local Anatolians had learnt how to write in the Assyrian language using the cuneiform script.

9:03  JT

500 out of how many texts?

9:06  GB

Out of a total of about 23,000 cuneiform tablets so far unearthed. And this number grows every year as the Turkish archaeologists led by Professor Fikri Kulakoğlu of the Ankara University. Every year, they enlarge that number; sometimes only by a handful, sometimes they hit jackpot and find 1000 or more tablets in a single season. So this is a growing material.

9:31  JT

What do those numbers really mean? And what’s the significance of the increase? Is it that we’re learning in more detail, or are we learning new things?

9:41  GB

That’s an excellent question. Because of course, we want to get a sense of whether what we think we know is representative and can in fact be confirmed by new data. And in general, the commercial system that I just described very briefly, this commercial system that involved essentially importing tin and luxury textiles from Assur into Anatolia, that system was figured out already about a century ago by assyriologists, who were working on the first texts that came out of the site of Kültepe, texts that have not been excavated by archaeologists, but by local villagers. That’s how the site was found. A larger analysis of that material was conducted in 1960 by a French assyriologist named Paul Garelli. What he laid out in his analysis has stood the test of time for 60 odd years. The overall constellation hasn’t changed, even though we have quadrupled the number of sources.

10:45  GB

That said, of course, on the level of technicalities and details, things have changed enormously. And in particular, this field of Old Assyrian studies, has taken a major shift in the last decade, due to a number of factors. Most importantly, many of the texts that had been excavated, were not really read or edited by anyone. But by the 1990s, the project was formed, including both Turkish and international scholars, that would oversee and organise the structured publication of the whole thing. And just to put this corpus and its size into perspective, our German colleague, Michael Streck, figured out what each of the sub-corpora in assyriology looked like, how many texts there were, and how many words on average were written in each text, in order to compare across the different periods and genres. He found the Old Assyrian corpus to be the third largest.

11:49  GB

Almost all of the 23,000 texts we have, we now realise were written by a single generation of people. So we’re looking at, let’s say, 20,000 texts written by between 500 and 800 people within a 30 year window. So the level of detail that we get in terms of these people and their lives and their interactions, is absolutely unrivalled by anything else. It’s not atypical to be able to follow, let’s say, a court case through 50, or 70, or in some cases, 100 documents that all relate to the same legal proceeding. Or we can find correspondences that relate to one transaction as it moves from Assur up through Syria, crosses the Euphrates and the tall Taurus mountains, and then finally reaches Kanesh on the other side, goes through customs, gets sold, gets dispersed into the Anatolian landscape.

12:49  JT

Was Assur normal or exceptional?

12:52  GB

So the kind of understanding that we get is very different from all other corpora. And so when I say I want to talk about trade here, I really have the opportunity based on this material to talk about trade in the widest possible scope, because it involves also the social reality behind the trade. And there is really no other material from the ancient world that can be compared. I think that the closest structural parallels to these records are the kind of stuff that you would find in the north Italian city state archives of the Middle Ages. And this is important for several reasons. I think one is that because of the density, and also the geographical liminality of the Old Assyrian evidence, has sort of played into a paradigm that is typical for assyriology, until, let’s say a generation ago: a paradigm of centre and periphery. One in which southern Iraq, Babylonia, Sumer, was seen as the political and the intellectual core of a culture surrounded by a[n] essentially, intellectually dead, or at least sort of passively receptive periphery that would reproduce, but not originate anything new. And Assur even, which is northern Iraq, right, was seen as part of that periphery. And of course, then the commercial network which stretched into Turkey, was seen as peripheral even to that.

14:22  GB

But also because of the very peculiar circumstances under which this material got saved and deposited, because of that conflagration–exactly the right time, exactly the right place, in exactly the right way–the Old Assyrian material is essentially unique, if not in subject matter then certainly in scope and breadth for the understanding of ancient trade. It was seen as somehow an outlier, an abnormality, that represented a fluke within a history that was otherwise understood and interpreted as being dominated by large centralised states and institutions and royal power, where economy was effectively a planned one, where there was no room for the market based exchange that the Assyrian records point towards. And this has gone up into very recent times, who have seen the Assyrian evidence as this strange outlier of societies that … that function very differently in terms of markets and exchange from ours today.

15:31  GB

But this is where this Assyrian evidence comes in, and problematises things, and where chronology and geography become very important. What has happened in the last 10 years of the field is that we have gotten a much better understanding of the chronology, owing to the fact that some texts were found, that actually give us the list of the dating systems that the Assyrian merchants used. Before that, we had the dates, but we couldn’t place them in any order. Because what they did was they dated each year to the name of an Assyrian official. Having that list allowed us to put into sequence all of our sources. And understand for the first time, the incredible chronological density. Everybody had, on the basis of the names that were mentioned in these texts and so on, figured that we were dealing probably with a couple or three generations of merchants. But what transpired was that it was really a 30 year period that was covered in great detail, and then a noisy flutter on both sides.

16:32  GB

That realisation, coupled with the realisation that the geographical system, the spread of the trade, was apparently quite a bit larger than what had initially been suspected. And the ability then to sit down and count transactions and count volumes of things that were being sold, and divide it up into, let’s say, a 30 year period rather than a 60, or a 90 year period, laid out really important ramifications for our assessment of the intensity and scope of these commercial activities. In terms of trade volume, we could then start laying out a conservative minimum estimate of the commercial activities during this 30 year period. Even with just what survives, we have several tons of tin, and hundreds of valuable textiles sold each and every year. Now to somebody who deals in Medieval or Renaissance trade, it’s okay, that’s maybe not deeply controversial, but it has definitely been controversial when we’re looking at something that takes place 4000 years ago in the middle of Bronze Age.

17:44  JT

Why is it controversial?

17:46  GB

Why? Because it has become clear that these hundreds of textiles and tons of tin that have been traded each year on donkey back from Assur and up to Anatolia, they were not produced by the Assyrian merchants, they were professional commercial agents. This tin came from far, far away; I don’t know exactly how far away. And many of the textiles, the majority of them, also came from abroad. They were most likely produced in southern Iraq, in Babylonia, and were purchased on the market in Assur by the Assyrian traders. These textiles and this tin had been brought down by other commercial networks that we don’t otherwise know anything about. But in the commercial letters that we have up from Anatolia, we once in a while get a report down from Assur saying “unfortunately, the market has dried up. And we can’t send you X, Y and Z”, showing that the Assyrian merchants have no control over the commercial networks that were transporting the tin and textiles to them.

18:51  GB

Correspondingly, at the other end, with a better understanding of the geography, we can now see that a very large proportion of what the Assyrians brought into Anatolia, they brought across the peninsula, Asia Minor, and sold it again at the limit of what must have been their trade network. There another network took over. So we’re dealing with trans-shipping. Why is that important? Well, first of all, because of the volume. Those other networks must have been quite capable, even though we have no other evidence for them, rather these sort of shadows on the wall come from the Assyrian texts. And because of the production that this kind of system involves, I imagine somebody has to breed hundreds of donkeys that can carry this stuff. The donkey is pregnant for 14 months, I happen to know. You can’t really use a foal until it’s about three years old. Somebody has to feed that, train that, animal, make it ready. The animal needs a saddle, a pack saddle made of wood. It needs leather trappings, it needs saddlebags. You need the sacking and the ropes and everything that goes along with it. There must have been rope industries, leather industries, that could produce what was necessary for this trade to take place on an almost industrial scale.

20:15  GB

No longer then is the Assyrian trade peripheral. There is no way that it can be, because at the scale that this is going on, it involves all these other industries and regions and other separate networks that we’re just seeing, as I say, as shadows as coming indirectly to us through the view of the Assyrian network. So that’s why I think this is so important. What it does, essentially, is that it deconstructs, on a very basic level, some of the societal theories that have been dominant through the 20th century; many of the core ones being that market trade, let’s call it capitalism or the some sort, evolved in Western Europe, that it was a phenomenon that was tied to a particular historical trajectory. And that elsewhere, especially in the “orient”, where focus was on temples and kings and palaces, because that was mainly the stuff archaeologists were bringing out of the ground at the time. There was no room for this, it was seen as the notional other, the Oriental model of production, as Marx called it, that was different from qualitatively, societally different from what developed in the West. What developed in the West was seen as being responsible for putting the “West” onto this trajectory that led it to world dominance in the second half of the second millennium AD. All of that you can now start to fiddle with and deconstruct through this incredible find at Kültepe.

21:52  JT

Who were these traders?

21:55  GB

The merchants, whom we have settled up in Kanesh, are the medium, small fish. They are typically the people who are sent off to the colonies as it were, to conduct trade as agents on behalf of the real investors, the money men who are settled down in the capital, Assur and were not going to move anywhere, thank you very much. These capital, major merchants down in Assur, therefore, we again only see as a reflection through the correspondence they’re having with their agents up in Anatolia, and through the responses that these agents have: I sold x textiles and y pounds of tin. And I obtained so-and-so much silver for it–silver being the currency of the age–and therefore, I’m hereby sending back to you so-and-so many pounds of silver with so-and-so–which, incidentally, shows that there’s a kind of a postal system by which these messages travel, and they can travel quite fast. We can see that even though it’s about 600 miles between Assur and Kanesh, messages could travel within two or three weeks from one to the other during dry and warm season.

23:09  GB

So who were these people? Well, good question. Because, as I said, we only see that, again, that reflection. Assur itself is a city state in the very generic sense of the word. It is one urban settlement, simply referred to as “the city” very often in the Assyrian texts. And although it may have had a few agricultural villages attached to it, surely it had, we never hear about that. It apparently had not a larger territory, then you could walk out to the edge of the city territory within a day or so. And work fields and orchards, pastures and things like that, and go back and sleep during the night. It was also a fairly small city; much, much smaller, let’s say than Kanesh. We don’t know exactly how big or small, because Assur later on went through a historical development much like the Roman Empire. Assur started out as a small city state with a basically republican constitution, and ended up being the notional religious, ideological capital of a world empire, Assyria, many centuries, even a millennium later. Because of that, lots of stuff was built on top of whatever the people of the Old Assyrian period were living in. And so that’s gone. So we can’t really understand what went on in Assur itself again, except through that reflection in the Kaneshite texts.

24:38  JT

And what do we see in those texts?

24:42  GB

What do we see there? We see a society that has a parliamental constitution, a parliament that is made up of two chambers: an upper and a lower. The lower chamber is simply called “the city, great and small”. We don’t know exactly who went there, who had the right to be part of that parliament. But by a minimum, it were all male, free members of society. Whether women could have been included as well is not clear. And then there’s an upper chamber, which is referred to as “the elders”. And the elders seem to have had the day-to-day running of the city as their main task. Whereas the full assembly, let’s call it “the congress” would meet for special occasions, and they would vote. So this is, you know, by all practical measures, something that reminds you very much of the Athenian constitution; not that “democracy” was invented in Assyria or anything like that. This is just one of the very fundamental ways that human societies organise. Again, when I teach undergrads, I usually point to the fact that the Vikings who came from Norway and settled Iceland came from a monarchy that created the Republic, in which everybody voted, and they met in the Thing once a year. And I’m pretty certain that they didn’t get that idea from reading Plato. They got that idea, because it’s one of the simple ways in which human societies get organised from village level to state level.

26:15  GB

Now, in Assur, the city assembly was presided over by a family where this position was hereditary. The title of the male leader of that family was either “the Lord”–that’s what people in general called him when they dressed him–or he was seen as the viceroy or the manager of the household of the god of Assur, who was also named Assur. And so on a notional level, he was the high priest in the cult of the city. And he was its religious leader, shepherd, on behalf of the god. But they never ever call him “king”. And most often, when we have letters written by himself, he identifies as “the president”. He’s the chairman of the assembly. So he sat at the assembly and apparently didn’t have the right to decide. The assembly did that. But he was its president in the sense that he would preside over it. And he would act as its notional secretary. When decisions were made politically by the city of assembly, for instance, “for the time being, we shall not trade in object x with the state y, because of political situation z”, then this decision would be noted down and written in the form of a letter out to all the Assyrian commercial settlements in the network by the president.

27:47  GB

So this person, the waklum–those who know Arabic will know the term wakil, which is directly cognate with it–“the chairman”, “the foreman”, something like that. He would write this message up and say “the city assembly has decided that x, y, and z”, but he never writes “I decided”. He clearly did not have the political power; he had the religious power. And he had the presidential power in the form of, let’s say, the Italian president.

28:14  GB

Many of the leading capital investors in the trade, were clearly part of the societal elite, that would have been, for instance, represented in the chamber of the elders. To a very large degree, the policies of this little state, which may have had as little as 5000 people living in it, maybe as many as 10,000, these people, the whole entire state, was organised around this trade. Interestingly, Assur does not seem to have had an army as such. It must have had a sort of a defensive capability of some sorts. But it’s tiny; probably, mostly for any kind of military engagement, it would have to depend on its citizenry. Again, much like your sort of average Greek city state a couple thousand years later. But we never characteristically hear this city being in any sort of military conflict for the first 500 years of its history. Rather, once in a while, it comes under the aegis of an outside lord, who will claim political supremacy over it for one reason or another. And then underneath that level, it functions pretty much the way it always did. Being a merchant, is what defines you as an Assyrian.

29:38  GB

And I think that that probably defines a certain type of state that existed in the ancient Near East. And of which Assur is a particularly well documented example, because of Kanesh. We would not have known anything about this, if Kanesh not been found. We’d have thought from what we found in Assur that Assur was exactly the same as everything else. So the reason why we know it’s different is that we have these correspondences, these commercial correspondences, that happen to survive, which point to the fact that there are other states that probably functioned in the same way. There’s the city of Sippar in Babylonia, which even appears for a while not to have had any kind of royal family, but really had been a republic. And there’s another example: the city of Emar on the middle Euphrates, what is today Syria, which was clearly a republican city. And all three–Assur, Sippar and Emar–are characterised by their specialisation in commercial activities.

30:43  JT

Do you think that’s a meaningful correlation?

30:46  GB

So it is tempting to think that there are certain ways of social, and therefore also political, organisation that go along with a specialisation in trade. And that there were political entities in this fragmented world of the early second millennium BC, where there were no large states–all of Mesopotamia It was kind of chopped up into tiny little blocks–that there emerged there certain political entities and social entities that were geared particularly towards trade. And then there were other, I would say, the majority of the other states that were geared more towards what we might see as production. And most of southern Mesopotamia would represent that, with enormous agricultural production, enormous surplus.

31:32  GB

But even there, once in a while, we happen to come upon this ephemera of trade. So, for instance, Sir Leonard Woolley famously excavated Ur, and found there in this exact period, while the trade is going up in Anatolia, an archive of a seagoing merchant. A man who was specialised not in going to sea himself. No, no. But rather, he represents what would have been the upper class in Ashur, an investor trader, who has, we can see from his archive, access to large storage facilities, in which he primarily keeps stuff like copper, which is coming in from probably Oman on the Arabian Peninsula, and which he is shipping in through the port of Dilmun, which is today’s Bahrain, the tiny island state in the Persian or Arabian Gulf. That’s only the two dozen texts that come from his archive. That’s all that survived. Nevertheless, it shows just enough to again, give you a hint that what we see up at Kanesh is really a much more general and universal phenomenon, and that there were these merchants who were specialised in trade and did nothing but.

32:49  JT

How can we follow your work?

32:51  GB

I think first of all, my name is unique. {LAUGHS} So I’m easy to find. The other … the other Gojko Barjamovic was my grandfather, and he is no longer among us, I’m sad to say. So the easiest thing, I guess, would be to go on to my Academia page. I do occasionally write for a broader audience. And one can find those works also on my Academia page for things like museum catalogues or specialised books that are more public facing, I think that would be the easiest way to follow my work.

32:51  JT

Thank you very much.

33:22  GB

Thank you.

33:25  JT

I’d also like to thank our patrons Tyler Russell, Enrique Jimenez, Haider al-Rekabi, Jana Matuszak, Nancy Highcock, Jay C, Rune Rattenborg, Woodthrush, Elisa Rossberger, and Mark Weeden. I really appreciate your support, it makes a big difference. And thank you for listening to Thin End of the Wedge. If you enjoy what we do, please consider supporting us via Patreon. That’s patreon.com/wedgepod. Even a couple of pounds a month helps keep the podcast going and brings us closer to the point where we can mak. I really appreciate your support, it makes a big difference. And thank you for listening to Thin End of the Wedge. If you enjoy what we do, please consider supporting us via Patreon. That’s patreon.com/wedgepod. Even a couple of pounds a month helps keep the podcast going and brings us closer to the point where we can make proper translations into Middle Eastern languages. You can also support us in other ways: simply subscribe to the podcast; leave us a five star review on iTunes or your podcatcher of choice; recommend us to your friends; follow us on Twitter: @wedge_pod. If you want the latest podcast news, you can sign up for our newsletter. You can find all the links in the show notes and on our website at wedgpod.org. Thanks, and I hope you’ll join us next time.