Episode 20. Xiaoli Ouyang: Silver in Sumer: money in Mesopotamia?: 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

Today we look at silver in ancient Sumer. It appears often in the texts, and we might imagine that it served as money. But what does that mean? We live in a world where money pays for everything. It can take the form of objects that are intrinsically not really worth anything themselves: copper alloy coins, paper or polymer notes, little rectangles of plastic, or even just numbers on a digital screen. What was life like before all of that?

1:06  JT

Several different commodities could be used to pay for things in Sumer. As a precious metal, silver was enduring, and a had a certain–and rather abstract–value attached to it. Where did the Sumerians get their silver from? Who used it and what for? Should we imagine everyone walking round with small amounts in the pocket? Was it purely notional: used as a common equivalence for all sorts of other things, but never really handled?

1:37  JT

Our sources for understanding life in the ancient Middle East are always uneven. Some types of evidence survive better than others. In some times and some places, we have a lot of information. At other times and places, we have less or no information. Our guest is an expert in Sumer around 2000 BC. And she knows all about silver. She guides us through what we do and don’t know, and how we make sense of it.

2:06  JT

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

2:21  JT

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

2:25  XO

Hello, Jon. I am very happy to be involved in this program.

2:30  JT

Can you tell us please? Who are you? And what do you do?

2:35  XO

My name is Xiaoli Ouyang. Xiaoli is my first name. And Ouyang. is my last name. I’m a assyriologist. Right now I teach in the history department of Fudan University, which is based in Shanghai. It’s one of the top universities in China. I’ve been teaching here since 2013. So it has been quite a while.

3:02  JT

We’re going to talk about silver and money in the city of Umma during the Ur III period. Could you maybe start us please with a brief introduction to the Ur III period {said as “Ur Three”} and Umma?

3:10  XO

Yeah, I’m very happy to do that. The Ur III period, you know, conventionally speaking, is dated to the 21st century BCE. The dynasty lasted for about a century. And why is it so famous in Mesopotamian history? It has to do with the huge amount of documentation coming from this period. I’ll give you some numbers. For example, I think right now we have more than 100,000 cuneiform tablets from the Ur III period. And they are scattered around the world in major museums such as the British Museum, the Louvre, the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology of the University of Pennsylvania, and the private collections as well. You can do your mathematics. So for dynasty of about a century, with more than 100,000 cuneiform tablets, that means on average, we have 1000 cuneiform tablets for each year of the dynasty. So this is unique in Mesopotamian history.

4:28  XO

As for the site of Umma, it’s located in southern Mesopotamia, right in the heartland of Mesopotamian civilisation. Among other sites from the Ur III period, Umma is the one with the largest number of documents. I think approximately speaking, the site itself has more than 20,000 cuneiform tablets. So that’s what makes the site of Umma special. You may want to know why I became interested in this site. The answer is simple. I did my PhD at Harvard University with Piotr Steinkeller. My previous advisor is an expert in the sight of Umma during the Ur III period. So when I was thinking about the topic for my dissertation, he suggested I could work on the documentation from this site as well. I looked at the tablets, and I think it was okay. So that’s why I started work on the Umma texts.

5:42  JT

What is money? And did Mesopotamians have it?

5:46  XO

I think it’s hard to give a universal definition to money. I mean, although every one of us knows what money is in a modern world, for scholars, there has never been a universal definition about money. For that purpose, most scholars including me, we turn to economical historian whose name is Karl Polanyi. He’s actually better known for his first book. It’s called The Great Transformation. But for people like me, you know, the ancient historians, we are more interested in his articles and books concerning the ancient economies.

6:32  XO

Back to the definition of money, he proposed four criteria to judge whether or not something functioned as money. So the first criterion is that money could be a means of payment. In other words, one can use money to make a payment; perhaps, to discharge an obligation. The second criterion is that money could function as a medium to facilitate indirect exchange. I’ll give you an example as well. So you could exchange for example, object A for money, and then use the money you get to exchange for object B. So this is called indirect exchange. When you cannot just exchange A for B money could help you. And the third criterion he proposed is that money could serve as a standard of value. We could measure the value of all the other objects against the value of money. The last function, according to Polanyi, is that money could be a means for storing wealth. You could hoard money as a way to buffer future economic problems or difficulties. So I think for the study of ancient societies like Mesopotamia, I think I follow the four criteria set up by Polanyi in defining what is money based on the four criteria he proposed. When it comes to the second question, “Did Mesopotamians have money?”, my answer is “yes”. But with a caution. The money that the ancient Mesopotamians possessed is definitely different from what we are used to today in modern society. In other words, their money is not our money, but they did have money.

8:46  JT

Perhaps the best candidate for money would be silver. Who would be able to use silver like this?

8:48  XO

I think considering, you know, the relatively high value of silver, I would guess usually, the better off people in society was able to use silver as money. Because conventionally speaking, one shekel of silver–approximately a bit over eight grams of silver–could exchange for 300 litres of barley. So that’s quite a lot. One shekel of silver can get almost a full year’s grain for an adult. So my speculation is that only the better off people in ancient Mesopotamia, they were able to use silver as money. It follows that silver was not the only kind of money back then. Texts show that they had what we may call the cheaper money. In addition to silver, products such as barley and other metals such as tin, copper, and perhaps bronze, could well have functioned as money. So I think in terms of money, people across different social strata, were able to use money. But when it comes specifically to silver, perhaps only the wealthy or at least better off people could afford to use it as money.

10:19  JT

What did people do with silver?

10:22  XO

I can only say from the Umma texts I’m most familiar with. Because the texts from Umma are what we call administrative documents. So when it comes to economic activities, they actually record when people dealt with the great institutions in the Umma province, such as the provincial government and the temples. So in that case, the people in Umma, they often paid off their taxes or their fees due to the government with silver. So in the textual evidence, we see a lot of examples in which the people liable to tax obligations, could discharge them with silver payments. So this is one common case.

11:19  XO

And in other cases, we could also see that the people in Umma, they could use this for their own economic activities. For example, the merchants, they sometimes paid people with silver, as their replacements to fulfil the corvee obligation. Pretty much the working age people in Umma, they had to fulfil a corvee obligation towards the government. And if someone chose not to do it personally, he could pay silver to another person as his replacement. So this is the less common case where we can see what people did with their silver.

12:05  XO

And last but not least, of course, people could spend silver buying stuff. For example, like a house or a building lot. But since most of the documents from Umma are administrative documents generated in an institutional setting, we don’t see this kind of sale documents very often. We only have maybe a dozen or two examples like that. So in a nutshell, in Umma people often made silver payments to the government in order to discharge their tax obligations. And sometimes they also spend silver on hiring someone as their replacements to fulfil the corvee obligation.

12:57  JT

Where did the silver come from?

13:00  XO

I guess we could approach this question from two perspectives. The first is of course, the physical source of silver. As you may know, Mesopotamia is very poor in terms of natural resources. It doesn’t have metals, it doesn’t have stones, nor does it have any good quality timber. So silver has to come from the outside world. The usual guess is that silver ultimately came from Anatolia. That’s what we call the Asia Minor today. We don’t have evidence from the Umma corpus showing the ultimate physical source of the silver. But we do have evidence from a slightly later period in the early second millennium BCE. The Kanesh archive excavated from Central Anatolia shows that the merchants from the city of Ashur, they built up a commercial colony in Anatolia. And from there they made silver and send it back to Mesopotamia. So we may infer from this model that perhaps the silver circulating in Mesopotamia, especially in the south in the third millennium, came from similar activities as well. So in terms of physical source, it has to come from the outside world, especially Asia Minor.

14:40  XO

The other perspective is to ask how could the people get silver as a source of income? My conclusion is that the local people, they were able to pursue their own economic initiatives outside the institutional setting. In other words, they were able to engage in private economic activities, such as perhaps gardening, some sort of handicrafts, and perhaps pig raising, and sell their products on local marketplaces in exchange for small amounts of silver. Here, I may need to explain the background a little bit more. There has been a consensus with regard to why the Ur III period left behind such a vast amount of documentation. The common explanation is that it was highly centralised government, and the economy was what we may call institutionalised. Pretty much the government controlled the land resources and the labour force. Everybody worked to his best and received some portions of daily necessities from the government as wages. But this kind of institutional economy still left some room for private economic activities. And it is through the pursuit of the private economic activities that the local people were able to have some silver revenue that they could tap on.

16:27  XO

So, in conclusion, in terms of the physical source, silver had to come from perhaps Asia Minor. For silver, when we talk about the source of income, the local people were engaged in their own private economic activities, and through selling their products on the local market place, could they have some income of silver.

16:55  JT

What silver actually routinely exchanged? Or was it normally only a unit of equivalence?

17:01  XO

I believe, together with a number of colleagues, in the Ur III period, and actually, in most periods of Mesopotamian history, silver actually changed hands. That is to say, it was not just a unit of equivalence that existed just on the tablets. This question actually goes back to the definition of money proposed by Polanyi, which I just explained at length. In other words, if we agree that silver functioned as one of the many kinds of money in Mesopotamia, it follows that silver was not a just a unit of money, because this is only one of the four functions fulfilled by money. And to argue that silver physically changed the hands, we have evidence from the cuneiform texts as well. For example, I remember one Umma text, it mentions that the silver payment was placed in a leather bag. So had it been just a unit of equivalence, there wouldn’t have been such a description. So I think it’s convincing that silver physically changed hands during the Ur III period.

18:28  XO

But would I go so far as to say that the silver was routinely exchanged for other kinds of goods, hmmm, I am a little bit hesitant about that. It has to do with the fact that silver is relatively expensive. And it’s hard to imagine it will be the money for daily transactions involving only small amounts of, for example, barley, or vegetables or fruits. I guess what I want to say is that we cannot estimate how frequent[ly] was silver exchanged back to the period of Ur III, but my guess is that it was not very common in daily transactions. Perhaps it was reserved for some high value transactions.

19:22  JT

What physical form did silver take?

19:25  XO

I think in third millennia Mesopotamia, we don’t have coins yet. For coins, the evidence comes from the first and millennium–I think, in the sixth century BCE. Archaeologists have excavated some coins in Asia Minor; actually, in the ancient Kingdom of Lydia, to be more precise. I think coins come from a much later period than the Ur III. It’s more likely that in the time of the Ur III kingdom, silver didn’t take the shape of coins yet. But perhaps it took the shape of rings or coils. We don’t have evidence from southern Mesopotamia during this period. But we do have it from the Diyala region. The Diyala River is a tributary of the Tigris River. And in the valley to the east of the Tigris River, we found silver in the shape of coils or rings. And some of them show traces of being broken. So if I’m pushed to say, what about the physical shape of silver function as money, I would speculate that perhaps the rings or coils made of silver served as money back then. And when people paid with the coils or the rings, depending how big the payment was, sometimes perhaps they pay with the whole ring, a whole coil. Other times, they may have to break snippets from it. And weigh the snippets in order to finish the payment.

21:15  XO

I would just like to emphasise that coins didn’t appear in Mesopotamia until much later in the first millennium. And I think in the entire ancient Near East, coins first appear in the ancient Kingdom of Lydia in Asia Minor in the sixth century BCE. And in Mesopotamia proper, we have discovered hoards of silver coins, dated to the Persian period. But back then the Persian coins, they didn’t have a face value, a stamp on them. They were actually weighed, instead of counted. So when they changed hands, small pieces could have been cut from them, and then get weighed, and then passed on to the other party. So in other words, in Mesopotamia, even during the Persian period, when coins started to appear, they still functioned in pretty much the same way as the silver coils or rings functioned back to the late third millennium BC.

22:26  JT

How was the value of silver set and checked?

22:30  XO

That’s the million dollar question. {LAUGHS} I want to ask someone else as well. We don’t know for sure. I don’t know how a modern economist would answer this question. You know, for example, in today’s UK or today’s China, how is the value of our money, the paper notes, is set? But back to the Ur III period, we don’t know. The texts don’t contain any clue of the mechanism through which the value of silver or any other kind of money was set. I could only guess maybe it’s by convention. For example, I mentioned before that in Mesopotamia, we have seen in different contexts, the equivalence of one shekel of silver to 300 litres of barley. So this seems to be a convention. Another speculation that I have is perhaps the value of silver could have been set by the two parties involved in a transaction. When the two parties agreed on their ratio, how much silver could exchange for how much of any other product? Maybe the value of silver was then set, but it’s just speculative. I have no valid idea of how the value of silver could have been set.

24:02  JT

How can we follow your work?

24:04  XO

I have a page on academia.edu. And if you can read Chinese, I have a page in the History Department of Fudan University as well. And all my publications in Chinese can be found in a Chinese database called CNKI.

24:26  JT

You also have a book on the subject, don’t you?

24:29  XO

Yes, it’s a revised version of my dissertation. It’s called The Monetary Role of Silver and its Administration in Mesopotamia during the Ur III period. A Case Study of the Umma Province.

24:48  JT

Thank you very much.

24:50  XO

You’re welcome. I’m always happy to talk about silver and Umma and Ur III.

24:58  JT

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25:33  JT

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