Development of Southern Mesopotamian Economic Structure


Early Antecedents of Sumerian Economic Structure

1. Sumerian economy, its organization and codified accounting system, had a long history in the Middle Eastern Neolithic.


2. We can trace the distribution of goods through the Levant as early as the Natufian and PPNA periods when Red Sea Shell and Anatolian obsidian was moved to such sites as Jericho, Beidha and Cayonu Tepesi.


3. In the PPNB and later more formal trading networks probably appeared with Catal Huyuk (with its possible stamp seals for ownership) controlling the Western Anatolian obsidian trade and, together such sites as Cayonu Tepesi and Umm Dabaghiya (onager), engaging in the distribution of hides and cereals probably being brought in to such peripheral sites as Umm Dabaghiya.


4. Finally in the immediate pre-Sumerian periods we see the foundations of the characteristic Mesopotamian economic pattern emerging.  There was increasing “importation” of a variety of valued materials (turquoise, lapiz lazuli, alabaster, carnelian, obsidian) at a time when the intensity and scope of inter-settlement connection was expanded as seen in the widespread distribution of Halaf, Hassuna, Samarran, and Ubaid ceramics being.


5. Thus, by the Ubaid move into the southern alluvium, the foundations of large-scale and long-distance economic interactive spheres were already laid. 


6.  Also from at least 6th millennium Halaf we see technological advances in ceramic production that allowed for greater production.  Thus the double –chambered kiln of Halaf was followed in the Ubaid by the slow wheel (and the Uruk fast wheel).  This shows a consistent move toward intensification of production that culminates in the mass-production of the later Uruk period.


7. Finally, the increase of agricultural intensification, following the Samarran and Ubaid adoption of irrigation agriculture (possibly with its distant roots at Catal Huyuk and Cayonu Tepesi), in conjunction with the other developments noted above, led from an extensive decentralized economy into one that required progressively greater central organization, intensification, and institutionalization.



Sumerian Economic Hierarchy

1.  The emergence of a stratified society in the Uruk Period involved the creation of a hierarchy of social groups that was associated with economic activity as well as with rank and power.


2.  Thus, at the apex were the “nobility,” comprising administrators, priests, and merchants who owned land themselves and controlled the corporate lands of the city-states as part of their governing duties.


3. Subordinate to the elite were the mass of the commoners who owned garden plots but otherwise were dependent on the state for their welfare in return for their labor.


4. A more specialized category of artisans and craftsmen worked chiefly for the government, although some private enterprise did develop as part of a market economy that later came to parallel the “temple economy.”


5. Finally, a body of slaves were owned by the city and employed on corporate projects – these were captives and debt-slaves.


6.  It is important to note that there was some fluidity within these categories.  Thus over time the rulers became increasingly powerful and turned previously autonomous landowners into clients so that by Ur III times all production, distribution, and trade were in the hands of the King and his followers and little private economy remained. Also, slavery appears to have been less rigid than in some other societies – people sometimes sold themselves into slavery for specific periods for debt but were then freed, thus moving between the categories of bonded and free commoners.



The Economic Functions of Sumer

1. The emergence of the “Temple Economy” in the Uruk Period represented an institution that was the principal manager of the expanding economic intensification noted above. The temple economy was above all distributive in form with rulers managing all production, storage, movement of valued subsistence commodities and items of elite rank.   


2. The temple administrators/priests and their secondary bureaucrats headed a temple society of craftsmen, merchants, scribes, and agricultural workers who:

- built and maintained irrigation systems.

- constructed the temples and other administrative buildings.

- supervised secondary agricultural communities within the city-   state.

- employed craftsmen to produce the metal, textile, ceramic, and   cylinder seals required by the central authority.  

- engaged in long-distance trade.


3. Specific developments within this economic institution involved the creation of temple-run workshops such as the corporate smelting facility discovered at Uruk, textile “factories” run by female workers, stone-working workshops and ceramic workshops.


4. Trade involved distant connections with Anatolia, the Iranian Plateau, and later the Persian Gulf region.  This resulted in the transportation of large quantities of valued commodities.  For instance the “Limestone Temple” of Uruk is made of stone from the Central Zagros – there is no stone in the southern alluvium.  


5. The growing requirements of mass employment and intensification led to streamlining of crafts associated directly with economic activity.  Thus small “bevel-rimmed” bowls were mold made in great quantities throughout Mesopotamia and beyond in a standardized size, probably to serve as the container for corporate laborers food rations.  Their capacity conforms to the grain ration noted in early texts.  Later the fast potters wheel permitted the mass production of similar type of bowls.  Invention of the grinding/cutting wheel and belt-driven drill allowed rapid production of stone cylinder seals, also vital for economy.  Introduction of the plano-convex brick allowed rapid construction of the progressively more elaborate architectural centers of political/economic authority.    


6.         The period marks conclusion of the move from carefully decorated ceramics of the Halaf/Samarran to vessels mass-produced by mold or on the potter’s wheel for utilitarian purposes.  Pottery seen more as an adjunct of economic and utilitarian life, so elite status craft work shifts to stone and metal with impressive sculpture and jewelry.


Private Economic Enterprise and Ownership: “Manors” to Oikos.  

1.  Even though great emphasis has always been placed on the “Temple” and later “Temple-Palace” economies in Sumerian studies, there was always a certain amount of private enterprise both overlapping these dominant establishments and to some extent independent of them. This private sector emerged in the earlier periods before the rise of powerful central governments and persisted in various forms throughout Sumerian history.  Moreover, in the Early Dynastic period, powerful private landowners were probably major players in the rise of the “Palace” over the earlier temple system.


2.   The archaeological expressions of private landownership can probably be traced to the T-shaped Samarran buildings and the Ubaid/Uruk “manor houses.”  These were the homes of families who combined storage and residential functions in their houses together with at least partial redistributive authority.  In the Early Dynastic Period this early “manor” pattern may have developed into one sector of the oikos system.  In this system numerous households, each with its particular specialist economic function, were integrated into unitary economic unit controlled by powerful elite families who were able to compete with persisting temple economies, also developing along the oikos pathway (see below).  Ironically a few of the most successful of these elite families probably created the later Early Dynastic Period “Temple-Palace” dynastic tradition that ultimately evolved into kingship and, by the Akkadian Period, significantly eroded private ownership.


3.  At a wider level it appears that Sumerian economy in the 5th millennium was based on the collection of tribute.  The tributary economy involved the exaction, by a political elite, of a portion of the goods and labor of the producers who made up the vast majority of the populace.  While in the 5th millennium Ubaid period, with the possible exception of some of the heads of “manor houses” and temples, most people were engaged in production to some extent, these elite establishments were able to maintain the storage facilities to house the resulting surpluses which freed them from daily production chores and to amass high status items not available to the general populace.  The temples probably used ideological means rather than force (offerings to the town gods and the sacred foundations) to attract this surplus and were not themselves directly engaged in production while the producers, when not engaged in accumulating tribute were free to act as independent agents conducting their own small-scale subsistence farming and craft production independently of the elite centers.


4.  In the 4th millennium Uruk period this tributary system intensified.  With greater social hierarchy and larger elite establishments, the demands on producers increased and many probably abandoned the land in consequence of this trend.  There consequently developed greater need for the expanding urban centers to exploit a wider rural economic support area, to develop transportation networks and labor saving technology and specialization in order to increase efficiency.  Thus inventions like mold and wheel-made pottery, drills and cutting wheels for jewelry and seal making, organized textile and metallurgy “factories” all appeared as means to maintain the amount of tribute required by an increasingly stratified society in the face of limited labor.  All of these developments encouraged the development of more intricate managerial strategies at the level of temple and “manor.”  Thus we see through the analysis of faunal remains, seal distribution, and “art,” evidence for more unequal control of elite items, centralized redistribution, and long-range trading networks.  At the same time the burgeoning urban population, now separated from the location of agricultural production, were available to erect great monuments to emerging power.


5.  A trend away from tributary economy and toward a centrally controlled economy occurred in the 3rd millennium Early Dynastic Period with the domination of the oikos system.  While multiple household economic establishments had existed to some extent since at least the Ubaid, this system had existed side by side with the larger and more differentiated tributary economy prior to the 3rd millennium.  Whereby in the tributary economy the elite siphoned a proportion of available labor, leaving the producing households a great deal of independence, in the oikos, these households were attached to multiple-household establishments that controlled sufficient farm laborers, specialists and producers to furnish the needs of the entire oikos community and to produce the surpluses and raw materials required to enhance the power of the leaders.  In effect member households became attached agencies with the oikos managing both the means of production and all redistributive authority.


6.  Both temple and private oikos establishment developed through the Early Dynastic Period.  in competition.  Through time fewer, more successful establishments incorporated others until by the late Early Dynastic single centralized city economies emerged under dynastic elite families, heralding one of the hallmarks of the Palace economy and Kingship.


7.  In spite of this prevailing economic evolution a parallel infra-structural market economy emerged in the Late Uruk and early Early Dynastic periods.  Here private owners sold their produce and artisans, who were permitted to work part-time for themselves in a “cottage industry, ”dealt their wares independently of the central economic authority.  Similarly merchants who worked for the central economic institutions were also able to trade to a minor extent on their own behalf, again feeding the market economy.   Such independent enterprise certainly would have stimulated the growth of greater specialization in craft production and fed the growing trend toward stratification.