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A Cow Never Died

Sumerian temple economies were marvels of administration—or at least their extensive written records gave them the appearance of being so.

Production was standardized and governed by labor-time norms that were determined, not by those tasked with the work, but by the priestly and scribal authorities. Workers—farmers, shepherds, canal diggers, and so on—did not produce for the sake of subsistence, or for the sake of exchanging their products on the market. Instead, they were enmeshed in a web of (uneven) reciprocal relationships, in which surpluses were transferred to the center for storage, redistribution (in the form of rations, wages, resources for building projects, trade goods, and so on), and the sustenance of the city’s tutelary deity—the temple was the deity’s “house” and the community’s concrete representation of its own social existence.

The accounting of the temple’s balances could be incredibly thorough, and surviving administrative archives cast (partial and incomplete, of course) illumination on a complex and organizationally sophisticated society—though the losses due to the U.S. invasion of Iraq are staggering. As for the planning itself:

In order to maintain an effective control of agricultural production, the administration also established and calculated the quality of the soil, the degree of salinisation, the distance between furrows, the intensity of sowing and the ratio between seeds and harvest. The available evidence only concerns public lands, which were the only ones requiring precise accounting. This is because they were not privately managed and required the involvement of several professionals.1

Sounds impressive. Let’s take a closer look:

The farming of cattle, sheep and goats also underwent careful controls through the re-structuring and standardisation of estimates. … When the administration entrusted a herd to a particular centre, it recorded the composition of the herd, establishing the parameters for the herd’s growth each year, as well as the quantity of dairy products to be produced. The parameters were purely theoretical. What really happened within the production unit escaped the control of the administration, and was therefore not recorded. The administration’s conventions were that a cow never died and gave birth to half a calf a year, alternating between a female and a male calf. The quantity of butter and cheese required from each cow was moderate, but one that had to be provided to the administration, no matter what the actual situation was.2

Such standardization had its advantages, it seems—at least for the temple scribes:

When a herd was entrusted to a shepherd, its composition was recorded and the parameters of births and deaths were established. Similarly, the quantity of wool to be produced was calculated, keeping in mind the differences between sheep and rams, as well as their size. Wool was then ranked according to its quality (there were at least six or more categories) and sent to manufacturing centres. Each operation had its own parameters. The administration took into account losses during manufacturing (carding, spinning and washing) and the working days it required. Consequently, a given amount of wool needed a certain number of working days to produce a certain quantity of thread (either warp thread or weaving thread). In order to produce a fabric of given dimensions, then, the administration knew the quantity of working days and warp and weaving thread required. It was then able to calculate the cost and raw materials needed before the whole operation even began.3

The temple scribes were certainly aware that their plans were schematic rather than reflective of the situation in the fields and workshops:

Cows certainly gave birth to more than half a calf a year, but they often died, and the real growth of a herd remains unknown to us. In order to avoid inconveniences, the theoretical values established by the administration therefore had to be lower estimates of the actual values. Consequently, the quantities of wool per sheep, butter per cow, harvest per seed, working days per vase or textile were administrative conventions that left enough margins to the workers. These margins seem to have been quite low for farmers and craftsmen, but much higher for merchants, especially due to the annual pace of returns.4

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to learn more about the struggles preceding the adoption of such margins.

  1. Mario Liverani, The Ancient Near East: History, Society and Economy (Oxford: Routledge, 2014), 163. ↩︎

  2. Liverani, Ancient Near East, 163. ↩︎

  3. Liverani, Ancient Near East, 163. ↩︎

  4. Liverani, Ancient Near East, 165. ↩︎