Friday, November 13, 2015

The 5000-Year-Old Archive of Free Traders

The 5,000-year-old Kültepe tablets:

The kiln tablets, considered the earliest written documentation of life in Anatolia, were unearthed during archaeological excavations on the Kültepe-Kaniş-Karum mound in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri.

Was this the documentation of kings and conquerors, the glories of an ancient warlord?

“The Kültepe tablets are completely owned by the private sector, private individuals. The content of the tablets is 99 percent commercial. They are not official state documents; they are the archive of free traders. In this term, they are the earliest private sector documents. Therefore, the tablets feature the feelings of traders at that time. Thanks to these tablets, we can get information about the socio-cultural structure of people who lived 5,000 years ago. It’s not just shopping; we can see what they went through in their daily life. It is not possible to get such information in the state archives,” said [Professor Fikri] Kulakoğlu, [Ankara University Archaeology Department].

Five thousand years ago there was a trading outpost in Central Anatolia, but of what importance are a few camel traders who left behind a few notes?

Kulakoğlu said the Kültepe Tablets were registered by UNESCO because they were the biggest cuneiform tablets in the history of mankind and that they were special in terms of their number and content.

“…biggest…special in terms of their number….”  This was no small trading outpost.  What is this Kültepe?

Kültepe (Turkish: Ash Hill) is an archaeological site located in Kayseri Province in Turkey. The nearest modern city to Kültepe is Kayseri, about 20 km southwest.  It consists of a tell, the actual Kültepe, and a lower town where an Assyrian settlement was found. Its name in Assyrian texts from the 20th century BC was Kaneš (spoken: Kah nesh), the later Hittites mostly called it Neša, occasionally Anisa.

Kaneš, inhabited continuously from the Chalcolithic period to Roman times, flourished as an important Hattic, Hittite and Hurrian city, which contained a colonised large merchant quarter (kârum) of the Old Assyrian Empire from ca. 21st to 18th centuries BC. This kârum appears to have served as "the administrative and distribution centre of the entire Assyrian colony network in Anatolia."

To date, over 20,000 cuneiform tablets have been recovered from the site.

Over twenty-thousand – that sounds like a lot.

The quarter of the city that most interests historians is the Kârum Kaneš, "merchant-colony city of Kaneš" in Assyrian. During the Bronze Age in this region, the Kârum was a portion of the city that was set aside by local officials for the early Assyrian merchants to use without paying taxes, as long as the goods remained inside the kârum.

It was a free trade zone without taxes and apparently, in this free trade zone, life was thriving – over 20,000 tablets, for goodness sake.

Further, this free trade zone offered some liberal social norms:

The Kültepe-Kaniş-Karum trade colony in the Central Anatolian province of Kayseri continues to amaze archeologists, with an expert at the dig revealing that tablets citing women’s rights were discovered at the Bronze Age settlement.

Yet, at its root, the colony was about trade – trade that apparently allowed for this thriving, liberating community:

Still, most of the 23,500 cuneiform tablets unearthed at Kültepe were about commerce. “Kültepe is where the Anatolian enlightenment began. The people in this area were literate much earlier than other places in Anatolia, including its west,” Kulakoğlu added.

Free trade, liberal, and educated.  But it couldn’t have been very large…

…Kültepe, which is thought to have hosted over 70,000 people four millennia ago…

Seventy-thousand?  The population of most major cities in Anatolia in 1800 – just 200 years ago – was not more than 20,000.

Of course, many will suggest that it was only via the blessings of a strong central government that such a thriving and educated trading community could be established.  Those many would be wrong:

Soon after the north Mesopotamian city of Ashur established itself as an independent state at the end of the 3rd millennium B.C., King Erishum I launched a series of trade reforms in order to secure the future of his kingdom. He lifted the state monopoly on trade, thereby allowing long-distance commerce to be carried out by private individuals operating within ‘family firms.’ This in turn led to the creation of a highly complex and wide-reaching trade network between north Mesopotamia and Anatolia during the first quarter of the 2nd millennium B.C.

They must have had a miserable life, left to their own devices and without such government involvement – sewage in the muddy streets, cramped living quarters, and slum-like conditions in the community:

The cities of the Old Assyrian Trading colony Period comprised stone-paved streets (with subterranean drainage channels) and open spaces separating individual neighbourhoods. Houses with mud-brick walls rising on stone foundations and supported by timber beams ranged from small, two-roomed structures to larger complexes of six or more rooms; most houses had two storeys. Constructed in local Anatolian manner, the houses were closely built.

Without taxes, who would build the streets and sidewalks?

The Lower Town notably boasted stone-paved streets which would have easily allowed cart traffic. The border stones lining the streets were intended for pedestrians, as well as providing a protective measure for the house facades.

“But,” you object, “it had to be a king that stored and secured all of these valuable treasures – mere merchants wouldn’t waste any time or space on such frivolities.”

Unlike royal or temple archives discovered in other ancient centres, the cuneiform archives of Kültepe-Kanesh represent the single largest body of private texts in the ancient Near East. They were kept in archive rooms, neatly arranged inside clay vessels, wooden chests, wicker baskets or sacks.

…the site possesses the largest collection of cuneiform texts comprising the private archives of its Assyrian residents, as well as those of a small number of Anatolians who also adopted the Mesopotamian system of writing and kept archives in the style of their Assyrian colleagues.

Maintained in the homes of private individuals…


You want multi-culturalism?  Nothing like free-trade to break down the barriers:

The particular settlement model of mixed cohabitation of local Anatolian and foreign Mesopotamian and Syrian merchants is not seen at any other ancient Near Eastern settlement.

I know – yes, there was a king.  However, in this “trading colony” the king’s hands were “off” about as much as could be expected.  And here was a thriving, educated and literate, community.

Long live laissez faire. 


  1. Most people assume, incorrectly, that life is an unbroken chain of ever increasing standards... so how would they explain 12,000 miles of paved roads 38,000 years ago, or efforts to rebuild the Tower of Babel 150,000 years ago.

    Our history is mostly hidden from us, buried with very ancient civilizations that arose, flourished, decayed, died, and vanished from view AND history... Only to be resurrected by those who desire that we regain an appreciation for where we come from, how we got here, and how we MAY hold on to what we've learned in the past few thousand years, or we'll be condemned to once again tread those well worn paths to civilizaton.

  2. Hey, In my public education, the World was run (in order) by Gilgamesh, Pharaoh (pick one), Pericles, Caesar (pick one), Charlemagne, Napoleon, and Lincoln.
    No others need apply.
    Merchants! Hah! Beneath notice.

  3. I looked at the links hoping to be able read some of translations of the tablets and didn't see any.

    Any recommendations where I could see some?

    1. I did not find any, although if I recall correctly, there were one or two academic papers (to be viewed with a fee) that might have some information.

      In any case, beyond a search, I have nothing to offer.

  4. You have outdone yourself once again! Excellent comments.

  5. Replies
    1. I thought so as well. In the middle of a land mass - and away from any water-based transportation - such a community thrived because the king did not levy a tax.

  6. Once again you've written an excellent piece. Kudos.

  7. I came here via the first link to your LRC article "I Was Brought Up to Believe"... Oh great, now I only have a few dozen more links to peruse... Thanks for taking me off on yet another journey of discovery! ;-)

    By the way, I've been engrossed in this YouTube series lately entitled the Survivors. Have you seen any of these? Amazing stuff for sure: