Unusual Accounting Practices in Archaic Mesopotamian Tablets: Notes

1     The archaic tablets (Uruk III/JN period) will be published by P. Damerow and R. K. Englund in MSVO 3, Berlin, but see provisionally H. J. Nissen, P. Damerow and R. K. Englund, Frühe Schrift und Techniken der Wirtschaftsverwaltung im alten Vorderen Orient (Berlin 32005) and the corresponding entries in CDLI. The corpus includes 90 texts, the majority of which (58) are currently in the Berlin Vorderasiatisches Museum; others are scattered across various museums and private collections. The textual references and the transliterations in this paper follow those of MSVO 3, unless specified otherwise.

2     It is assumed that the basic numerical Š(E, later Sumerian “grain”) system was used for unprocessed grain/barley, the derived systems Š' for malt, Š" for emmer, and Š* for grain groats, following most recently R. K. Englund, “Grain Accounting Practices in Archaic Mesopotamia,” in J. Høyrup and P. Damerow, eds., Changing Views on Ancient Near Eastern Mathematics. (=BBVO 19; Berlin 2001) pp. 1-35. For the sake of simplicity, the term barig has been used to denote the basic unit of capacity for grain products (“N1”), according to P. Damerow and R. K. Englund “Die Zahlzeichensysteme der Archaische Texte aus Uruk” in M. W. Green and H. J. Nissen, Zeichenliste der Archaischen Texte aus Uruk (=ATU 2; Berlin 1987) pp. 153-154, n. 60 (according to later texts, representing approximately 60, here perhaps 25 liters).

3     Tablets MSVO 3, 55 and 70, are accounts of grain and, respectively, malt and emmer, measured and totaled separately in the numerical Š and, respectively, Š' and Š" systems. MSVO 3, 1, 68 and 73, are accounts of grain and emmer measured and sub-totaled in the numerical Š and Š" systems, and then combined in a numerical Š system notation. Tablet MSVO 1, 38, is an account of grain and emmer measured in the numerical Š and Š" systems and combined in a numerical Š system notation (on the other hand, in the similar account of tablet MSVO 1, 36, grain and emmer are combined in a numerical Š" notation). Grain groats and malt (both beer ingredients) are recorded in a number of texts from Jemdet Nasr together with other commodities and totaled separately, qualified by their respective derived numerical systems (Š* and Š'). In a few cases, they are reckoned together in a numerical Š system notation (see tablets MSVO 3, 51, treated below §6, and MSVO 1, 94, treated by the author in CDLB 2004/3). In the account MSVO 3, 26, grain groats are counted and totaled in a numerical Š* system notation, and then combined with grain in system Š.

4     The obverse of the irregularly fomed tablet MSVO 3, 41, is divided into three sections (the reverse is not inscribed). The first and third sections record a number of grain and emmer rations to individuals. The second section records a total of 180 barig of grain and 66 barig of emmer (in Š and Š" notations, respectively), which are composed of 120 barig of grain plus 24 barig of emmer qualified as ŠE U4 GIBIL and 60 barig of grain plus 42 barig of emmer qualified as ŠE U4+2N57. There is no apparent relationship among the three sections.

5     A shortened form has been adopted in the heading of each paragraph to indicate the numerical notation, and thus to eliminate an otherwise necessary repetition of “(products counted/totaled in the) derived numerical [ŠE] system”.

6     The beer ingredient identified as malt is never qualified as such in the tablets, being only distinguished from other grain products by the use of notations in the derived system Š'. See, however, the comment to text MSVO 3, 12, in §4.

7     EZEN AN MUŠ3 may denote a month name. For other occurrence of the sign combination U4 SIG AN MUŠ3a EZENb, see R. K. Englund, BBVO 19, pp. 21-22, n. 48.

8     See also MSVO 3, 3, in which a number of grain rations measured in the basic Š system are quantified and totaled in Š* and qualified as HIgunûa, a grain product which in all probability is to be identified with the grain groats. The Cornell University tablet NES 00-08-073.1 (unpublished, made available to the author courtesy of D. I. Owen, curator of tablet collections) is an account of barley (ŠE), grain groats (HIgunûa) and malt, measured in their respective derived numerical ŠE systems. The total, qualified as HIgunûa ŠEa and measured in a Š* notation, is divided into two subtotals, both measured in the Š notation and qualified respectively as HIgunûa ŠEa and BA KI (for a commentary on this administrative term see §7).

9     It is worth noting that MSVO 1, 216, records a quantity of barley (ŠE) destined for the production of beer-bread (? – KUb2 ŠIMa) together with the two beer ingredients, grain groats and malt, measured in their respective capacity systems Š* and Š' and combined, with other grain rations, as a general grain capacity (ŠE) in the numerical system Š.

10     See, for instance, the text MSVO 3, 3, mentioned in note 8 above.

11     The account MSVO 3, 78, demonstrates the same format, having as first entry a quantity totaled as a grain product HIgunûa, subdivided in a quantity of the same grain product (HIgunûa) and a quantity of barley (ŠE). All the listed products are measured in the Š notation. The transaction was possibly not intended to record the production of beer.

12     See for instance the text MSVO 3, 42, treated in this paper in §5.

13     In a similar way the Cornell University tablet NES 00-08-72 (unpublished, made available to the author courtesy of D. I. Owen), which is an account of barley and emmer, totals in the Š notation both products, leaving one sign in the Š" notation, which, differently than tablet MSVO 3, 52, is in this instance the most significant sign-number. Such circumstance confirms the conclusions reported in § 3.

14     Recorded as ˹4N39a?˺ in CDLI (P005323).

15     See, however, the comment to the account MSVO 3, 75, in §8.

16     Whether the sign sequence in the archaic texts has any linguistic relevance is unclear.

17     Cf. MSVO 3, 49; ATU 7, pl. 60, W 20493,2, and pl. 61, W 20493,7; R. Englund in J. Bauer, R. Englund and M. Krebernik, OBO 160/1 (Freiburg Switzerland 1998) 163, fig. 57, W 20274,89; and Cornell University NES 00-08-073.1 (unpublished) mentioned above, n. 8.

18     Cf. ATU 3, pl. 52, W 20266,44-45, both belonging to the category “tribute”.

19     To associate this term with ki-ba (“in the place”) of later periods, although semantically compatible, would imply the use of -ba (*-bi-a) as a suffix (in the composite term KI BA and perhaps in the dubious GI+GI BA), not proved and not likely for the archaic period.

20     The interpretation of MSVO 3, 75, offered here has profited from an email correspondence with Damerow and Englund, both of whom, however, disagree with my conclusions. I therefore state for the record that the proposal of an implicit “weighted mean” in this account is entirely my own.

21     GIŠ+TE is found in a number of tablets as a second destination of emmer: see for instance the tablets MSVO 3, 1 and 70. The term is also present in the Cornell University tablet NES 00-08-72 mentioned in note 13 above.

22     In MSVO 3 texts, only the numerical sign 1N4 has been identified as a reference ration value. However, the result of the summation of all the entries listed on the obverse (including 1N4 in case rev. i 1b1) is equal to 140 2/5 barig, which exceeds by 2 2/5 barig the quantity recorded as the total in case rev. i 1a. This excess quantity corresponds exactly to the total of the fractional values, which evidently are not part of the provisions.

23     Preliminary comments to this text by Damerow and Englund in Frühe Schrift, p. 208 (and in CDLI, see P005386), refer to this notation, that exceeds the summation of rev. i 1a by a quantity corresponding to the numerical notation 1N4 2N41, as a distribution of emmer nearly equal to the presumed total of all individual entries of the account's obverse.

24     This quantity would correspond to about 1/7 liter according to the value of the barig estimated by P. Damerow and R. Englund ATU 2, pp. 153-154, n. 60.

25     If a “weighted mean” was used, the details of the reference values should have been reported in other tablets. The account MSVO 3, 42, would have recorded just the summary of the results of the relevant calculations.

26     Cf. for instance tablets MSVO 4, 1 and 2, treated in S. Monaco, “Revisiting Jemdet Nasr Texts: IM 55580+,” CDLB 2004:3, where the concept of average seems implicit in the recorded accountings.

27     We may just mention the complex “rotational turn of office” of the Ur III bala-system, which required long term planning of expenditures from the nineteen appointed governors, responsible in turn for the collection of the various commodities to be delivered as offerings to the main Sumerian gods in Nippur.