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.
Freedom is a complicated concept when applied to ancient Iraq. There are many ways to not be free, whether on a short term temporary basis, or as a permanent or semi-permanent status. Even outside of slavery, there could be restrictions on someone’s movement and compulsion of their labour.
Were the world’s first prisons built in Mesopotamia? Who would be subject to confinement and what would that involve? Cuneiform texts touch on the ideology and practice of restraining liberty. Why was anyone confined in the first place? Who benefitted from that, and how?
Our guest is an expert in imprisonment in ancient Iraq. He guides us through the social context of confinement, and explores the similarities and differences from modern practice.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
It’s my pleasure to be here.
Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Nicholas Reid. I’m a professor of Old Testament / Ancient Near Eastern Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando. My main area of research is assyriology, focusing on social history. And also I like to work on unpublished texts.
So today, we’re going to talk about your work on confinement and control. There were lots of ways in which someone might be obliged to stay in a certain place or do a particular kind of work. It’s not as simple as just free versus imprisoned, is it? So could you introduce us please to the different types of confinement in ancient Iraq?
Yeah, it’s interesting. Confinement or detention, imprisonment. It’s not regulated in any way. And so it’s used for a variety of purposes. Now, that doesn’t mean you could just go grab anybody and just hold them indefinitely. People were accountable to others. But there wasn’t a standard approach or a standard function for confinement. And so it’s multi-functional and it’s multi-contextual. It occurs in a variety of contexts. We know from archaeology that space in the ancient Near East was generally multifunctional. And so it’s not surprising to see that prisons could appear in … or imprisonment or confinement could occur in, say, a temple, a workhouse in a palace, in a private residence. So it happens in a variety of contexts. It also happens in a variety of reasons. It’s normally tied to a judicial process. So if someone is suspected of committing a crime, being held for a variety of reasons, or even as to force a payment after an offense, a person could be detained for that purpose. So it’s clearly attested in judicial process, which causes us then to see crime intersecting a lot with imprisonment, not so much because it’s as punishment, but because a person who commits an offence could be held until it’s determined whether or not they’re guilty and a punishment is meted out.
The second way we see it attested is labour coercion. A person can be forced to perform certain duties. And this usually happens with the lower stratum, but it’s not consistent in the record. It seems to be something that, say, for example, if a person runs off of their work responsibilities during the Ur III period, they can end up living under guard. This doesn’t seem to be the case with the Old Babylonian period, but does appear again, say with the Kassite or middle Babylonian period. The third main area I think that we see confinement being used is in relation to debt. And that’s what we think of as a debtors prison or something like that. But it’s when someone owes money and they’re being forced to pay it; being held in order to work it off or being held until a payment can be made. That doesn’t necessarily either with labour coercion or with debt, that doesn’t have to be the debtor. And it doesn’t have to be the person who ran off from the job. It also could be a member of that household. So it’s fascinating. It happens in a variety of contexts, for a variety of reasons.
You mentioned there that space had different functions, and you mentioned the word prison, and then very quickly corrected yourself. So before we go too far, could we please just discuss whether or not there were prisons?
Right. I mean, it’s a question that’s been generally asked in the field of assyriology: whether they were prisons in ancient Mesopotamia. I think it depends on how you answer it. I think everyone would agree that if you’re thinking of a modern prison, as we have them today, and that debate is usually defined, or what a prison is defined, largely by the US context. So a prison is typically seen as a place that a person is being held for punishment, rather than like a jail, for example, where a person is being held as part of a judicial process.
That distinction, then, is sort of carried over into Ancient Studies. And in the field of assyriology, people will ask questions such as “Okay, is it being used as punishment?” There’s very little evidence, if any, that it was. How long were people being held? Most of the time people intersect with detention in these texts. Most of the time, it’s pretty short term, though there are some longer stays that are attested. The other question that assyriologists will often ask is, “Is it an institutional context?” Because prisons are institutions of sorts today. And generally, it’s agreed that there were not prisons by that definition.
I think what’s interesting is, if you look at the way modern prisons are being studied today, though, people are looking beyond stated functionality to actual use. How does the prison actually function? And how does the jail actually function? And that sort of evidence has led, I think, to … as people ask those sort of questions has led to … a broadening of an understanding of what a prison is. But I think, in general, just like when we talk about firsts with Mesopotamia, I think that, in general, we would say, “No, it’s not a prison, in sort of the normal sense of the word”. But I do think the evidence is relevant to understanding how the detaining of the body has been used throughout history.
Holding people for forcing labour has deep historical roots. Requiring payment has deep historical roots. Holding someone as part of a judicial process has deep historical roots. And so I think all of that is relevant to the broader question of studying prisons from an historical perspective. But I don’t think we can say that there were prisons in ancient Mesopotamia.
Okay, so we have these different types of confinement. What’s the justification for that? Were there some people liable to it or exempt from it? Did it happen in circumstances within a person’s control? Or could it be imposed regardless of your actions, for example?
It’s an interesting question. It really depends. It depends on the cause behind the confinement. Any member of a household, for example, could end up confined for debt, or because of a suspected crime. So a person could be held no matter who you are, virtually anyone could be held for those reasons. It does seem to be that with the lower stratum, as I mentioned before, they do seem to be more susceptible to detention for labour coercion in certain periods in certain historical contexts from ancient Mesopotamia. But most of it is more broadly attached to one’s actions. So if a person fled from an official work project during the Ur III period, they end up living under guard very often. And even though this doesn’t happen in other periods, it does often seem to be attached to the actions of a person.
Okay, what was the goal of confinement then? Is the focus on the individual or on an institution, the wider society? Who is supposed to benefit and how?
Yeah, detention was normally to work through a judicial process gathering evidence, forcing payment, requiring compensation for a crime, or to force work performance. On that basis, I think we have to consider it being more about wider society. It was intended to confine people in order to make them conform to certain expectations, whether it was related to crime, or to require them to be involved with building projects or work owed to institutions. It’s really only with the attachment of ideology, religious ideology, in literary text and later rituals, that we can sort of begin to see the benefit of the prisoner really coming into view. So I think we would have to say that in general, it’s the wider society that matters.
Can we move a little further then on that religious dimension to confinement? What role does it play here?
Yeah, I don’t know that it plays really much of any role at all in terms of the everyday practice. We’re not told any clear reasons why someone’s being held for religious purposes in the everyday texts, so documents of practice. But it’s interesting that ideology did come to be attached to imprisonment. That is evident in literary texts and later rituals. This is likely in part due to the intersection between religion and the judicial process. I think the classic example of this is the hymn to Nungal, which is a literary text that was frequently copied in the Old Babylonian period, as part of the training of the decad. And Nungal is a prison goddess, who oversees the prison and her house is inescapable.
And at one point in the text, the area’s made up for the ritual of the river ordeal, which is often seen as the divine river. And there’s the river ordeal, this ordeal that one must go through in which the gods sort of determine if a person is guilty or not. We don’t know all of the details of how that’s supposed to work. There’s some speculation about what occurs, but it does clearly have some sort of ritual and ordeal religious element to it.
And what’s interesting in the hymn to Nungal is that she snatches … or her chief prosecutor snatches … the guilty party from death, and brings them back into the prison. That’s really not expected from the evidence and probably not reflective of what happened in everyday practice. But she brings them back into her house of confinement. And there the person, you know, cries out and laments and Nungal through that process will purify the individual, and then cleanse them like silver, and then represent them or repair the relationship with their personal god, who is necessary for their protection. And so it’s interesting that, that Nungal does that; this concept of purification, in this literary text that dates to the Old Babylonian period. I think Attinger dates it to the Ur III period based on some of the readings that are preserved there. But it’s somewhere in that rough period of time.
But what is interesting is that Nungal is featured in some actual documents of practice, through her casting net. So for example, at Sippar, where the cult of Shamash was related to justice, the casting that does feature in ordeals, where oaths will have to be taken as part of the judicial process as we see this in some of these legal texts. So Nungal does have a role. And the idea is that the the casting net, it’s inescapable. And so if you go and you take this oath before Nungal, there’s clearly a religious element to that. Just like it used to in the United States. And I … I believe in Britain as well, where people would swear on the Bible as part of this process to tell the truth.
What’s interesting is how then this ideology then gets attached to later rituals, like the king who spends time in prison and on the eighth day of the month of Tashritu is then brought out. So it’s interesting how on the everyday level, it doesn’t seem to have any necessarily religious attachment to it. But it did come to have this ideology that was attached to it, that then began to focus on the benefit of the individual and had a purifying element to it. It’s really not so much that they’re made better through playing of musical instruments like we think of today with therapy. And it’s not so much that it’s the idea of positive change in the individual in sort of the correction sense that we have today. It really seems to be in the hymn to Nungal being tied to ritual. Through ritual lament this person is purified.
Okay, I wonder if we could chat a little bit about sources. If there are no prisons, then presumably, there are no prison records. And you turned there to a literary text to explain the ideology of imprisonment. And you questioned there the extent to which that reflects, you know, reality on a day to day basis. But the you mentioned there the legal texts that have something to say. So what sources are available to study this topic?
Yeah, so there are literary texts. There’s royal inscriptions. Documents of practice. So we’ll see a number of administrative texts, where people will be living under guard, receiving rations. There are legal texts that mention it. There are personal letters written from people who are in prison. There are also personal letters written by people who are confining others and waiting for instruction on what to do. Imprisonment of sorts pops up in a variety of different text types, most of them are administrative documents. And that’s expected, because they were responsible for reporting where human resources were, what they were doing, the context. And they were also receiving rations for those individuals. So it’s important that they report on where they are, and who’s there at that time.
What was life like in confinement, then? You’re fed, and presumably clothed? Your basic needs are looked after. You can write letters, I guess, if you can read and write yourself. What would it be like to be in the confinement? And what impact would that have on your life after release? Do we know?
Life on the inside of prisons, when we’re told about it is … we’re told it’s miserable. There are complaints about prisoners being beaten; that’s as probably part of the judicial process. There’s mention of a fear of death. There’s death attested. We don’t always know why. Some think that they’re afraid. In some texts, it’s the expression of the fear of death or beatings. Other times, we’re just told that someone dies in an administrative document. And we don’t know why. So we can’t really assess what happened there. Certainly death is attested in variety of texts that don’t intersect with imprisonment. So we can’t really make too much of that.
And the prison is described in one personal letter is a house of famine. It’s generally seen as a place that’s not pleasant. I think that there is a rough predictor of treatment. It’s the reason behind imprisonment. If one is being held in order to be coerced to work, then generally, we expect to see some sort of provision made for that worker in terms of rations and provision, because they want to extract labour from them. In general, in these institutional contexts where a person’s being worked, there seems to be a general provision made for them. When people were being held as part of judicial process, or because they had been suspected of a crime, for example, then it seems that you could in many instances be more dependent on your social network for survival, because that’s why we have the personal letters as they’re often asking for a higher official or a person they’re dependent upon to provide for them, so that they can gain access to clothing or to food or to bribe the guard.
So there’s a variety of predictors, I think, that we can look at and see how someone was generally to be treated when they’re being confined and the contexts speak to that. But it’s not a failsafe way of looking at it, because we certainly know of famine, say happening in neparum in Mari, for example. There’s mention of starvation as well. So in these institutional contexts. But in general, I think that when a person is being coerced to work, they’re generally are provided for in some sense, whereas more private or in contexts where they are suspected of a crime, they seem to be more dependent on their social network.
If you’re being confined in order to extract your labour, are you then doing a special type of work? Or are you doing the same type of work as maybe somebody else but just not being paid for it?
Yeah, it’s not entirely clear. The texts that give us this information is very limited. And there have been studies about people who are working in confined work contexts like the bit asiri or the neparum. Sometimes that’s attached to perhaps milling, for example. So that would not necessarily be something that those individuals would normally be doing. In other contexts, though, I think they would have been working alongside other people performing similar types of duties. Again, this is where the lack of standardisation comes in. We don’t see a singular thing occurring.
And I suspect that like for example, in the Ur III period when a potter … there was a potter named Lugal-ninglagare, who had run away and he appears in prison living under guard and then is back in his potter crew, later in texts. I suspect that he was still perhaps performing similar functions. He just did not have some of the same freedoms that other individuals on those projects would have had. So whether that’s reduced rations, whether that’s just no freedom in the evening to walk about; you have to go back and sit with a guard. We don’t know exactly, but I don’t anticipate that that potter for example, would then suddenly just be milling or doing some other work or responsibility. I think it has to do more about having to live under guard and losing even some of the … even if there were limited freedoms … losing some of those freedoms while on the work projects.
Okay, given the nature then of confinement as you’ve described it so far, if I were walking down the street, and I saw somebody, would I be able to tell if they were being imprisoned or not?
It’s a difficult question. What we do know is, is that they were living under guard. That’s really where we get the word ennung and ennunga. They’re living under guard. So a house of guard is where they’re confined. So if they are walking about the street in this scenario, then they are being controlled in their mobility. I think that when we think about the ancient world, we think of slaves or even prisoners as not being able to move about at all. And I think Seth Richardson has done a good job in some of his work, talking about how there was mobility that was involved. But that mobility is controlled. And so I think that that could be a way of thinking about it is that we do know that some of these you would have definitely been able to tell, because they would have been wearing fetters. And bonds; they would have been held in brick structures, unable to move about. They would have been attached to a guard. If there was some movement that was allowed, that was probably controlled movement that was approved. They were not able to just go about and do whatever they wanted. That’s for sure.
Right. So you mentioned earlier that one of the major questions that people ask him at this topic is how long somebody would remain in confinement. So what are the ideas around that?
Part of it goes back to the inquiry into the history of prisons. The history of prisons as a field of inquiry is relatively recent one, dating back to roughly the 1970s. And part of the way of determining in those early studies about what a prison was, was based on the US example. In the US example, jails are largely local facilities that are used to hold individuals or for small punishments leading up to typically about a year. With prisons, it’s more of a state or federal institution, and punishments often exceed a year. And so the length of time was enveloped into one of the questions about how we assess whether or not it’s a prison. If someone’s there only for a few days, then it really doesn’t qualify as a prison at all. If that’s all we ever see. And so the question was just do we see things longer that might reflect the idea of a prison sentence? What we see in Mesopotamia is most of the evidence points towards short term stays in confinement. These don’t qualify as prisons in the standard classic sense.
But there are lengthier stays that are attested. Over a year. The longest that I’m aware of happens during Shu-suen’s reign, where an individual stays for over three years, which is really unexpected. But that does not seem to be an indicator of a normal length of time, as there’s a spike in the length of stays around the early years of Shu-suen’s reign. And again, because it’s not regulated, and because it can be used for a variety of reasons, I don’t think this really informs more broadly how we should think about imprisonment in ancient Mesopotamia. Instead, I think these are anomalies where individuals were held for extensive periods of time. There is some language in texts from say, Mari, where one text mentions putting a person away, so as to never hear from them again. So this seems to have this idea of … whether rhetorical or actual … this idea of confining someone indefinitely. But in general, most of the time when we see individuals being detained, they’re confined for a relatively short period of time. Sometimes just four days or so. With that said, I mean, a lot of times the documents don’t tell us the information that we’re always wanting to ask of them. Because that’s not the purpose of the writing.
How does this kind of confinement or this range of confinement types in the ancient Middle East fit within the longer historical picture?
I do think it’s informative insofar as scholars working on ancient Mesopotamia, those who are working on the classical world, and even those working on modern prisons are beginning to think more broadly about how confining the body can be used for a variety of reasons. And so as people look at how, basically after the abolition of slavery in the United States, for example, the only way you can basically re-enslave someone was through crime. Prisoners were ruled out as ones who did not have the same rights as other individuals by virtue of their humanity. And so that became then a mechanism that could be used, and was used through the formation of new laws, to control the recently free population to force them to work. And so all these laws called “the Jim Crow laws” were created in order to be able to force work from the recently freed population.
And so as people look at how that’s happened, or with more recently, the war on drugs, people look at how prisons are actually used in society, not just their stated functions. And I think as we start to look under the hood of modern prisons, then there are very interesting things that we can think about when we look also at ancient prisons. In this special issue of the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern History, there was some great articles on different types of historical writing. Seth Richardson, for example, wrote on a nice article on political history. And Dan Fleming wrote on social history. And I think that he made a good point there about how social history provides us an apolitical context to ask fundamental questions about what does it mean to be just. And so we look at ancient Mesopotamia and we look at this idea of people being imprisoned for a variety of reasons, we see religious ideology being attached to it. We see this idea of reform and even, you know, through ritual or through literary texts, when we see these sort of ideas, how do we think of those? Does that seem to be something that’s good? Does that seem to be something that’s just? It’s an apolitical context to ask hard questions about what does it mean to be a just society.
And so I think that, for that reason, the study of prisons or imprisonment in the ancient world, will continue to have a valid place in our broader thoughts and thinking about the history of prisons, from a broader perspective. Not because there’s a evolution. Not because there’s a one to one connection, or anything like that, but just that imprisonment is … was multifunctional, because if you can detain the body, then you can control a person. And you can do so with limiting damage to that individual. And so that then becomes a mechanism that can be used for a variety of reasons. And I think that has deep historical roots and something we see in both modern prisons, but also in antiquity with the study of imprisonment.
Okay, thank you. So you’ve written about this in detail in a book, how many that was published recently?
Yes. Prisons in Ancient Mesopotamia, published 2022.
What’s next for you, then? Are you going to work more on confinement? Or do you have a another topic to explore?
Yeah, so I’m going to be continuing to do some more work on confinement. I’ll be exploring some other topics and dabbling in other periods as well with it. I’m also working on publishing some texts as well. And that’s always fun, because you never know where that’s going to lead you. Once you find something, right? But yes, I do intend to continue to work on the topic in a variety of ways.
Okay, well, thank you very much indeed.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me, Jon.
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