Tuesday 31st March 12:46 pm
The oldest known complaint letter
Tuesday 24th March 2015 8:00 am
Most people are not malicious, but that doesn’t stop anybody from getting upset. And to try to restore the balance, you might just complain. And how long has this been going on?! A long time. The oldest known complaint letter, and let me emphasise a written complaint letter, goes back 3750 years.
It’s not a coincidence that each of the oldest written languages were invented by civilisations that lived along rivers.
The Chinese developed alongside the Yellow River, the Indians along the Indus River, the Egyptians along the Nile River, and the Mesopotamians between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the Middle East.
The word ‘Mesopotamia’ comes from ‘meso’ meaning ‘middle’ and ‘potamia’ meaning ‘(land) between the rivers’. Mesopotamia covers almost all of present-day Iraq, along with smaller sections of Syria, Turkey and Iran.
The long and complex history of Mesopotamia encompasses some 12,000 years — ranging from Protohistory, through the Early, Middle and Late Bronze Ages, and then the Iron Age, and finishing off with Classical Antiquity and finally Late Antiquity around the 7th century AD.
Our complaint letter comes from the Middle Bronze Age — and right in the middle of this Middle Bronze Age was the First Babylonian Dynasty, about 1750 BC. About 30 years earlier, one of the most renowned kings of Mesopotamia, Hammurabi, had promulgated one of the earliest known set of laws — the Code of Hammurabi. You need laws in all societies.
The Mesopotamian society was advanced and complex. They had agriculture and armies, astronomy and medicine, and they had invented many technologies such as glass and lamp-making, irrigation, water storage and flood control, textile weaving and metal working.
In metal working, they were one of the first Bronze Age peoples in the world, and they worked their way through copper, bronze alloyed with both arsenic and tin, gold and finally iron. Trade was vigorous in Mesopotamia, and that included trade in copper ingots, the subject of our written complaint letter.
The letter was written in cuneiform. ‘Cuneus’ means ‘wedge’, while ‘form’ means ‘shape’, so cuneiform was a series of wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, using a blunt reed as a stylus to make the marks.
Cuneiform began about five-and-a-half thousand years ago, and died out only around 200 AD. In Roman times, it was completely replaced by alphabetic writing – indeed, cuneiform has now totally disappeared. It was deciphered only as recently as the mid-1800s.
In 1967, A. Leo Oppenheim published his book, Letters from Mesopotamia: Official, Business and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millennia. Rather than deal with epic texts and royal promulgations, he selected his 150 clay tablet translations to give a more intimate and varied image of the Mesopotamian civilisation, covering a window from 2300 right up to 540BC. Oppenheim includes letters from poverty-stricken women to their generous brothers, from pregnant slave girls and yes, between merchants, manufacturers and traders.
So back in 1750BC, a copper merchant called Nanni sent a letter to a copper smelter called Ea-nasir. Nanni complained about the poor quality of the copper ingots his agent was being offered, the rude treatment given to his agent, and how he (Nanni) now had neither copper ingots nor his money.
Nanni wrote (and I quote from the original cuneiform):
“You have put ingots which were not good before my messenger and said, ‘If you want to take them, take them. If you do not want to take them, go away’. What do you take me for that you treat … me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen, like ourselves, to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you), but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory.
… You alone treat my messenger with contempt! …
You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore my money to me in full.”
There you have it. A slice of life from nearly 4000 years ago — an angry merchant ripping strips off an unreliable supplier.
Now it turns out that a million-or-so cuneiform tablets have been excavated over the years, but only about 5 -10 per cent have ever been translated. Why? Well, there is only a few hundred qualified cuneiformists on the whole planet. So, if you want to enter an interesting field which is not already overflowing, go and learn Mesopotamian cuneiform.
Now today, if something goes wrong in a human transaction, you just bang off an email, and it arrives within a second.
But 4000 years ago, while still seething with anger, you had to first find a scribe to write your text over a few hours in cuneiform onto a moist lump of clay, then fire it carefully in an oven, and finally get a courier to personally deliver this fragile tablet.
Remember that, the next time you go to fire off an angry text, tweet or email …
© 2017 Karl S. Kruszelnicki Pty Ltd