The OA Period - Introduction – University of Copenhagen

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The Old Assyrian Period

Sources and sites

Old Assyrian society is illuminated by the now about 22,000 texts discovered at Kültepe in central Anatolia and by the archaeological record from this excavation. OA texts have also been discovered in much smaller number at a few other sites in central Anatolia, at Alishar (I.J. Gelb, Inscriptions from Alishar and Vicinity, OIP 27, Chicago, 1935), and from Boghazköy (KBo 9, 1954, KBo 28, 1985, and KBo 36, 1991), and royal inscriptions plus a handful of private texts have come from Assur.  For details on the discoveries and collections of tablets cf. C. Michel, Old Assyrian Bibliography, OAAS 1, Leiden 2003.
Kültepe from where the bulk of our documentation comes was a major city in Middle Bronze Age Anatolia, when it was known as Kaneš. It consists of a central mound, some 500 meters in diameter, where the excavators have found palaces and temples, and a lower town that appears to have reached all the way around the mound and that is reported to have had a diameter of about 2 kms. A small part of this lower town has been excavated and found to contain private houses that were inhabited by businessmen, whose home town was Assur on the Tigris, more than 1,000 kms away from Kültepe. This part of the lower town is referred to as the kārum Kaneš, the Kaneš colony, and it is from the houses here that the tablets come. Some houses in this area were inhabited by Anatolians, and a few of these have turned out to contain smaller archives that reflect the activities of these local people.
The Kaneš colony was the central institution in an Assyrian network of colonies and trading stations (wabarātum) that reached from northern Syria to the Black Sea coast.

Illicit diggings and excavations

The majority of the available Old Assyrian texts have no archaeological context. Those now housed in museums and collections all over the world were dug up by the local peasants and sold on the antiquities market in the period between ca. 1880 and 1948; in 1925 Bedric Hrozny found the first archives(1),  but his excavation was chaotic and unsystematic and we have only imprecise and partial data concerning his discoveries. In 1948 the official Turkish excavations led by professor Tahsin Özgüç began, but the publication process regarding the more than 15,000 texts discovered since then is only now getting started (2).  The texts from the Turkish excavations will be published separately by the Turkish Historical Society, so in this project we are concerned only with the texts discovered before 1948.
The excavations in conjunction with the philological study of the textual corpus that has been available to scholars has led to a profound understanding of Old Assyrian society and especially of the commercial system of long-distance trade that was its basis (3).  We are faced with the most extensive documentation for ancient commerce from any region or period of the Near East and the Mediterranean world, a material that can only be matched by the evidence from the Geniza texts(4) and the immense documentation for the trade of the Italian cities of the Renaissance. This fact alone gives a very special significance to our corpus, which will prove invaluable in future discussions about the economic structure of ancient societies and the significance of trade (5). However, the highly technical nature of the philological studies that have been concerned with the Old Assyrian social and commercial structures has made it difficult for non-specialists to make adequate use of this material and to integrate it into more wide-ranging historical and theoretical discussions. It is our hope that these editions will facilitate a broader application of the corpus in such fields.

Long-distance trade

The texts all stem from private archives that were stored in houses inhabited by Assyrians in the lower city that surrounded the city-mound of ancient Kaneš. The commercial community that grew up here, the kārum Kaneš, literally “the Kaneš port”, based its existence on a pattern of long-distance trade that involved the importation of quantities of tin and textiles from Assur, some 1,000 kms away on the banks of the river Tigris and the home-city for all the Assyrian traders. Tin, needed for the production of bronze, came to Assur from unknown sources on or beyond the Iranian plateau, whereas textiles appear to have been partly locally produced and partly imports from the Babylonian south. The close contacts established with such southern centres as Sippar on the northern edge of the alluvium are illustrated by a few recently published letters from there(6).
The goods were transported from Assur to central Anatolia by donkey caravans that traversed the Syrian steppe, crossed the Euphrates and reached Kaneš after having penetrated the Taurus mountains onto the Anatolian plateau. The tin and the textiles were then either sold on the market in Kaneš or they were shipped to other commercial establishments located in a number of Anatolian cities. The transactions involved in the sale carried out by members of the family or on commission through agents were often of extraordinary complexity, but the end result was the procurement of silver which could be sent back to Assur in order to be invested in new caravans (7).

Dynamic developments: firms and families

The documentation for the Old Assyrian period comes mainly from Anatolia. From Assur itself we have a few royal inscriptions and a small scatter of private texts, but nothing that could have prepared us for the magnitude and complexity of the Old Assyrian trade. We build our analyses, therefore, on material from the Kaneš colony, where hundreds of Assyrians had established themselves, built or bought houses, often married Anatolian women and created new local families.
The texts from Kaneš cover a period of some 65 years, and they are discovered in houses that had as a rule been destroyed by fire and abandoned. The picture we can draw on the basis of our documentation represents a stage in a dynamic development; we must assume that the commercial network had started in a pattern of venture trade with short-term caravan visits to central Anatolia, and that gradually the traders developed a system of permanent representation abroad in the most important or most strategically located towns. At the time covered by the bulk of our texts a large group of Assyrian merchants were more or less permanently installed, not just at Kaneš but in several other Anatolian cities, foremost among which were Durhumit and Burušhaddum, the centers for the production of copper and silver. It is to be assumed that the abandonment of the houses in Kaneš was a local phenomenon, and that the trade continued in some form based on the other Assyrian colonies in the region.
The commercial structures were based on the families. Typically we find the man in charge of the family in Assur, from where he directed the activities of his sons, brothers, nephews etc., who had a multitude of tasks to perform in the various towns in Anatolia. He was the one who could guarantee a steady flow of tin and textiles to his people abroad, so their economic existence was tied directly to his activities.
In the period covered by the bulk of our material Kaneš was where all families had their Anatolian headquarters, and it was presumably also here that all caravans from Assur had to come. In Kaneš we therefore find the directors of the Anatolian branch of the family firms, often the oldest son who had been sent out from the capital to be in charge of the operations abroad. Usually this man would handle the sale of the merchandise arriving with the caravans, and he would have to dispatch other members of the family to carry out jobs in various towns in Anatolia.

Administration: the City and its colonies

Kaneš was also the administrative centre for the Assyrian presence in the foreign land, subordinated to the political powers in the capital. The government in Assur was constituted by three major institutions: the king who had ritual functions, a hereditary position, and who as chairman of the city assembly was responsible for the implementation of decisions taken by this body; the assembly was accordingly the other main element in the constitution, presumably a council of elders whose judicial functions are particularly well attested; finally, the daily administration of the city’s economy, including the responsibility for taxes etc., was in the hand of the year eponym, the limmum, an official who functioned for a year and who appears to have been chosen by lot among the members of the city assembly (8).
The Kaneš colony was under the direct supervision of the city assembly, and it was responsible for all matters abroad, i.e. outside of Assur (the City) itself. The other colonies and trading posts in northern Syria and Anatolia were governed from here and for instance had to go through the Kaneš authorities when appealing to the capital.
Some very poorly preserved texts contain fragments of the constitution of the Kaneš colony, showing us that there was a plenary assembly (kārum ṣaher rabi), a council of “great men” and a scribe who functioned as secretary for these bodies. There was also a not very well understood institution of week eponyms, presumably men who like the year eponyms in Assur functioned in an important administrative capacity during their term of office (9).
The Assyrian presence in northwestern Syria and Anatolia was based on a system of treaties with local rulers. Two such treaties were found in a house in Kaneš in 2000, one with the king of Kaneš and one with the ruler of Hahhum, a major town on the upper Euphrates. These texts still await publication, but it has long been clear that the treaties included regulations for taxation and special privileges given to the palaces such as the right to preemption for quantities of textiles, rules for the restitution of merchandise lost because of robbery or brigandage within the ruler’s territory, and sections about Assyrian privileges such as extra-territoriality, judicial autonomy etc. (10).
The Kaneš colony had a central office, the bēt kārim, which appears to have functioned much like the bēt Alim or City Hall in Assur, where the eponym resided. This building has not yet been uncovered at Kültepe, unfortunately, so all of our documentation also for the function of the governmental institutions both here and in the capital comes from the private archives. The understanding of Old Assyrian trade and society is therefore entirely dependent on the study of the families, i.e. their archives from the houses in Kaneš. The Turkish excavations have shown how the houses had special archive rooms, where the texts would be placed on shelves or in large jars. The archives contain different groups of texts: the letters from Assur, primarily from the head of the family, who gives instructions and orders to his representatives and family members in Anatolia; and they also contain the evidence for the way in which these orders were converted into action: letters from people in other towns, contracts with customers etc., accounts concerning taxes or the sale of merchandise, and not least judicial texts showing the role played by the authorities in the regulation of the commercial system.

(1)  Published in ICK 1 and 2, KTS 2 (12-40), KKS, and Prague I. For the excavations see Hrozny 1927.
(2) Texts published in AKT 1 (kt a/k tablets), AKT 2 (kt n/k tablets) and AKT 3 (kt v/k tablets); the texts from the 1990 excavation season have been published by P. Garelli and C. Michel in TPAK 1. The main excavation reports written by Tahsin Özgüç are Türk Tarih Kurumu Yayınlarından V seri 10, 1950, 12, 1953, 19, 1959, 41, 1986, and Sa. 46, 1999, all published in Ankara. See also Orlin ACC.
(3)  For a recent discussion with an up-to-date bibliography see Michel CMK. General descriptions of the period in Veenhof 1995b and Larsen 2000.
(4)  See simply Goitein, S. D. (1967-93). A Mediterranean Society, 1-6. Los Angeles, University of California Press. 
(5)  See for instance the discussion of the Polanyi paradigm in Veenhof, AOATT, 345-400, and Gledhill and Larsen 1982.
(6)  AbB 12, 51-60.
(7)  See Garelli, AC, Larsen, OACP, Veenhof, AOATT and Michel, CMK for analyses of the caravan trade and the procedures used in Anatolia. For the complex copper trade see Dercksen OACT.
(8)  For a reconstruction of the Old Assyrian political system see Larsen, OACC.
(9)  For the relationship between the capital and the colonies see Larsen 2000.
(10)  See Larsen 1974; cf. also Çeçen and Hecker 1995.