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The economic activities of Isḫunnatu, a slave woman of the Egibi Family


Within the framework of this second meeting entitled “The Economic role of women in the public sphere in Mesopotamia:  from the workshop to the marketplace”, I tried to find examples of slave women involved in economic activities inside the public sphere, that is to say outside their master’s home. To have enough time to develop my subject, I chose today to present you only one single example: it is about Isḫunnatu, slave of the Egibi family from Babylon, who manages a drinking establishment in Kiš, a city located some 12 km east of Babylon. In the introduction, I would like to give some general information about the context in which slave women are quoted in private archives and especially in the Egibi’s.

 1) On one hand, we notice that in the great majority of cases, women slaves appear in a passive way in private archives:

a) They are mentioned in sale contracts when they are bought or sold. In this first example, Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, chief of the third generation of the Egibi family sold a slave woman named Mizatu at Opis :

Camb. 143 (Opis, 24/xii/Camb 2) [abstract]: (1-5)Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, son of Nabu-ahhe-iddin, descendant of Egibi, has voluntarily sold to Asalluhi-ah-uṣur, son of [Šila’], his slave woman fMizatu for the full price of 1 mina and 25 shekels of silver.

     b) Slave women are also mentioned in family documents such as dowry contracts or testaments. In this second example, Itti-Marduk-balaṭu gave 5 servants as dowry to her daughter Tašmetu-tabni :

 Cyr. 143 (Babylon, 26/xi/Cyr 3) [abstract]: (1-8)Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, son of Nabu-ahhe-iddin, descendant of Egibi, has voluntarily given 10 minas of silver, 5 slave women, household goods, dowry of fTašmetu-tabni, his daughter, to Itti-Nabu-balaṭu, son of Marduk-ban-zeri, descendant of Bel-eṭeru.

  c) They can be also mentioned in promissory notes among pledged properties. In this third example, Marduk-naṣir-apli, chief of the fourth generation of the Egibi family, secures a heavy debt by casting a real estate and a slave family including a mother and her daughters as pledge for the debtor:

 TCL 13, 193 (Susa, 10/xii-b/Dar. 16) [abstract]: (1-4)45 minas of nuhhutu-silver of one-eighth alloy belonging to Šarru-duri, royal officer, son of Edraia, is the debt of Širku, whose second name is Marduk-naṣir-apli, son of Iddinaia, descendant of Egibi. (6-14)Madanu-bel-uṣur, his wife, fNanaia-bel-uṣur, his sons, Zababa-iddin, Madanu-bel-uṣur, Bel-gabbi-Bel-ummu, Ahušunu, and his daughters, fHašdayitu and fAhassunu, a total of 8 slaves from the service of his home (…) are the pledge of Šarru-duri.

2) On the other hand, we notice that slave women do not appear in two types of activities which seem reserved to slave men:

a) First, women never act as agents contrary to some slave men who take care of a part of the economic activities of the Egibi family. For example, in this text, Nergal-reṣua, slave of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu receives the rent of a home belonging to the Egibi family following his master’s order :

Camb 253 (Babylon, 7/viii/Camb 4) [abstract]: (Concerning) 8 shekels of silver, half-yearly rent of a house belonging to Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, son of Nabu-ahhe-iddina, descendant of Egibi, which is the debt of Arad-Bel, son of Kalbaia : Nergal-reṣua, slave of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, received them according to the instructions of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, from Arad-Bel, son of Kalbaia, descendant of Šuma-libši.

 b) Second, women are not among slaves who receive a formation for a specific job through apprenticeship contracts. Slaves men could learn various very qualified jobs as weaver, cook, lapidary’s craftsman, potter, sack-maker, carpenter, etc[1]. These contracts were a way for the Egibis to diversify their income. For example, in this text, it is Nuptaia, wife of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, who sends a man slave belonging to her husband to Bel-etir, the weaver master:

Cyr 64 (Babylon, 20/vii/Cyr 2): Nuptaia, daughter of Iddin-Marduk, descendant of  Nur-Sin, has given Atkal-ana-Marduk, slave belonging to Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, son of Nabu-ahhe-iddin, descendant Egibi, to Bel-eṭir, son of Aplaia, descendant of Bel-eṭir, for five years to (learn) the weaver’s craft (išparūtu).

The great majority of women are used in housework, activities which do not produce the writing of contracts. Beyond domestic activities, rare texts allow us to study the case of women slaves working outside the house. So, the story of Isḫunnatu is an exceptional example.

1. History of the business establishment entrusted to Isḫunnatu

1.1. The creation of the business establishment during Cambyses’ reign (530 – 522)

   The business establishment entrusted to Isḫunnatu is documented by two Babylonian texts belonging to the Egibi Archive found in Babylon : Camb 330 and Camb 331[2]. These texts were drafted the same day of the 6th year of Cambyses in Kiš and more precisely in Hursagkalamma. The name Kiš applies to a range of tells covering a large area. Hursagkalamma corresponds to Tell Ingharra, in the south-Eastern part of the Kiš area[3]. The Egibi texts allow us to study the creation of a business establishment at this place.

1) In Camb 330, a man named Marduk-iqišanni must deliver to Isḫunnatu, slave of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, an important capital including furniture and dishes:

 Camb 330: (1-2)Equipment which Marduk-iqišanni will give to Isḫunnatu, slave woman of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu : (3-7)5 beds (gišná = eršu), 10 chairs (giš = kussû), 3 tables (gišbanšur = paššuru), 1 lamp stand (ingurēnu), 3 knifes (serpu), 1 iron hoe (marru), 1 axe (qulmû), 1 fermenting vat (namzītu), 1 vessel stand (kankannu), 1 kettle (mušahhinu), 1 vat?giššiddatu, 1 maššânu, 1 chest (arānu), 1 reed ušukullatu(7-8)They own nothing jointly. (8)They will not renew litigation against each other. (9-10)Equipment which belongs to Isḫunnatu, until the end of the month of šabāṭu (xi), Marduk-iqišanni will not make it out. (11-12)Isḫunnatu will pay the rent of the house by herself. (13-15)Witnesses : Remut, son of Aplaia, descendant of Arad-Nergal ; Bel-apla-iddin, son of Remut, descendant of Paharu ; Tukulti-Marduk, son of Iddin-Nabu, descendant of Šangu-Parakki (16-17)And the scribe : Kalbaia, son of Ṣillaia, descendant of Nabaia (17-19)Hursagkalamma, 11th day of kislīmu (ix), year 6th of Cambyses, king of Babylon, king of Lands. (19-21)The promissory note belonging to fLillikanu, Marduk-iqišanni will give it to Isḫunnatu.

 The contract contains three very allusive clauses. The first specifies that « Marduk-iqišanni will not make the equipment go out » from the business establishment during a period of two and half month (l.9-10). The second specifies that « Isḫunnatu will pay the rent of the house by herself » (l.11-12). The last one says that « The promissory note belonging to fLillikanu, Marduk-iqišanni will give it to Isḫunnatu » (l.19-21). We can wonder who is the owner of the house to whom Isḫunnatu now has to pay a rent ? Is it Marduk-iqišanni or Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, descendant of Egibi ? Most of the historians consider that the house belongs to the Egibi family, but we have to confess that there is no evidence in this text for this affirmation. Anyway, we understand that Marduk-iqišanni was the previous owner or the previous tenant of the business establishment simply qualified here as « house ». He managed it, maybe with Lillikanu, who is quoted at the end of the contract. He lends part of his capital including furniture and dishes to Isḫunnatu, the Egibi’s slave woman, during a period of two and half months. If Lillikanu’s share was sold to Isḫunnatu, this transaction would have produced the writing of a promissory note that is the debt of Isḫunnatu. Finally, Isḫunnatu has to give the rent of the house, probably to his owner. So, it seems that the creation of Isḫunnatu’s drinking establishment comes from the rental of an already existing establishment. With the expected profits, Isḫunnatu will be able to return or to buy the equipment belonging to Marduk-iqišanni.

  2) If part of the capital of the establishment comes from Marduk-iqišanni, a second part was supplied by Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, master of Isḫunnatu, as shown in text Camb 331. In this second text, the Egibi chief gives to Isḫunnatu a capital composed of food, furniture and dishes. This capital has a value of 2 minas and 2 shekels of silver. The contract specifies that Isḫunnatu will give to Itti-Marduk-balaṭu an interest during one and half month. If we consider an usual annual interest of 20%, Isḫunnatu will pay 3 shekels of silver for one month and a half. After this period, it is possible that Isḫunnatu will repay to her master a part of the profit of her business establishment.

 Camb 331: (1-8)1 mina of silver, price of 50 vats-dannu of fine beer with (their) haṣbattu ; 40 shekels of silver, price of 10 800 liters of dates, 22 shekels of silver, price of 2 bronze kettles (mušahhinu) weighing 7 minas 1/2, 7 bronze cups (gú.zi = kāsu) and 3 bronze bowl-baṭû as well as 720 liters of kasû which are stored in the house, a total of 2 minas and 2 shekels belonging to Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, son of Nabu-ahhe-iddin, descendant of Egibi, are at the disposal of Isḫunnatu, slave woman of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu. (9)Until the end of the month ṭebētu (x), she will pay an interest. (10-14)Not including : 5 beds (gišná = ešru), 10 chairs (giš = kussû), 1 kettle (mušahhinu), 1 vat-giššiddatu, 1 stand lamp (ingurēnu), 3 knifes (serpu), 1 iron hoe (marru), 1 axe (qulmû), 2 fermenting vats (namzītu), 1 stand for fermenting vat (kankannu ša namzītu), 1 vat of decantation (namhāru), 2 maššânu. (14-17) Witnesses: Remut, son of Aplaia, descendant of Arad-Nergal ; Bel-apla-iddin, son of Remut, descendant of Paharu ; Tukulti-Marduk, son of Iddin-Nabu, descendant of Šangu-Parakki (17-18)And the scribe : Kalbaia, son of Ṣillaia, descendant of Nabaia (18-20)Hursagkalamma, 11th day of kislīmu (ix), year 6th of Cambyses, king of Babylon, king of Lands.

The Isḫunnatu’s business establishment consists of the rent of capital goods belonging to Marduk-iqišanni and maybe to Lillikanu and of capital goods belonging to Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, her master.

3) Another text, OECT 10, 239 (Museum number : 1924/1280), would show that Isḫunnatu obtained goods from a third source[4] :

OECT 10, 239 / 1924.1280): (1)4 beds (gišná = ešru(2) 3 chairs (giš = kussû)  (3)1 table (gišpaššuru(4) 1 vat- giššiddatu for beer (5)1 (vat- giššiddatu) for water (6)1 rack(?)simmiltu (7)1 fermenting vat (namzītu(8-9)They were entrusted to Isḫunnatu. (10-14)In the presence of  : Belšunu, son of Zababa-eriba ; Nabu-ah-ittannu, son of Zababa-šum-ereš(?) ; Ṭabiya, son of Bel-iddin ; Zababa-ana-bitišu, son of [NP] ; [NP], son of [NP].

This text arises numerous problems: First, this text doesn’t belong to the Egibi archive, it was found in Kiš and was drafted in front of Kiš inhabitants if we consider the presence of the god-name Zababa among witnesses. Second, there is no date, this text was just a memento. Third, it quotes a woman, named Isḫunnatu who received furniture and dishes, same kind than texts Camb 330 and 331. So, it’s not clear if this Isḫunnatu is the Egibi’s slave and if this text is connected to the drinking establishment of the Egibis in Kiš. But, we have to admit that it will be an incredible coincidence that the city of Kiš shelters two establishments of the same kind both managed by women with the same name. More, the name Isḫunnatu (meaning “cluster of grapes”) is very rare[5]. This text would show that our Isḫunnatu has received furniture and dishes probably from people who live in Kiš. For Isḫunnatu, this capital from Kiš would have served to develop her business activity or to replace Marduk-iqišanni’s goods which were at her disposal during a limited time.

It is very exciting to imagine that this text was maybe discovered by the archaeologists directly inside Isḫunnatu’s establishment in Kiš. Unfortunately, we have to specify that we don’t have any information about the place of the excavation. Even the date of this discovery (ie 1924) seems to be wrong as McEwan notices: « Some texts in the 1924 series (1924.943 – 1786) are known to have been numbered in 1950 (…) Thus, these tablets may date from excavations seasons other that 1924 »[6]. So, it’s impossible to link this text with a precise archaeological expedition in Kiš and to determine from which tell he comes from.

1.2. Economic activities during Darius’reign (521 – 486)

The economic activities of Isḫunnatu in Kiš continue during the beginning of Darius’ reign as shown in two other texts drafted in Hursagkalamma but probably found in Babylon within the Egibi archive: CTMMA 3, 65 and BM 30948[7]. At this time, the slave woman belongs to a new master: Širku, nickname of Marduk-naṣir-apli, son of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, descendant of Egibi, leader of the fourth generation of the family. So, Marduk-naṣir-apli inherited Isḫunnatu among his father’s possessions.

1) In CTMMA 3, 65 dated from the second year of Darius, Isḫunnatu receives 1800 liters of dates from Nabu-reu’šunu, son of Nabu-eṭir, descendant of Sin-tabni. This creditor probably comes from the city of Babylon, where his ancestor’s name is the most attested:

CTMMA 3, 65: (1-6)(Concerning) the full (payment of) 1 800 liters of dates, Isḫunnatu, slave woman of Širku, on the instructions of [PN], son of Nurea, has received them from Nabu-re’ušunu, son of Nabu-eṭir, descendant of Sin-tabni. (7-10)Witnesses : Bel-lumur, son of Iddin-Marduk, descendant of Šigua ; Nabu-ah-remanni, son of Remut, descendant of Rab-šušši. (10-11)Scribe : Bel-šakin-šumi, son of Iddin-Nabu, descendant of Eppeš-ili. (12-14)Hursagkalamma, 25th day of kislīmu (ix), year 2nd of Darius, king of Babylon, king of Lands. (15)They have taken one (copy) each. (16-17)Dates which for 1 reed vat for decantation (namhāru) … were given.

The contract specifies that the dates were used to buy a reed vat of decantation (namharu). We shall see later that this kind of dishes was necessary for the functioning of an establishment as Isḫunnatu’s one.

2) In the last text, Isḫunnatu borrows 10 800 liters of dates. She has to give them back in Babylon, on a canal and she has to pay the transportation costs (gimru). The use of the dates is not specified: to buy furniture or to make beer ?

BM 30948 / Bertin 2780): (1-5)10 800 liters of dates […]Hursagkalamma [belonging to?] Bel-apla-iddin, son of Remut, descendant of [NP], is the debt of Isḫunnatu, slave woman of Širku, descendant of Egibi. (6-8)The 20th day of kislīmu (ix), she will pay the 10 800 liters of dates on the canal // according to the mašīhu-measure of [PN] // and the transportation costs. (8-11)[Broken lines] (12)A previous promissory note of […] (13-17)Witnesses : Kalbaia, son of Nabu-ahhe-iddin, descendant of Egibi ; Balaṭu, son of Marduk-šum-iddin, descendant of Sippe ; Iqišaia, son of Zababa-iddin, descendant of lú-dugsila3.bur (18-19)Scribe : Tu[kulti]-Marduk, son of [PN], descendant of [PN]. (20-23)Hursagkalamma, 3rd day of [NM], year [xth of] Darius, king of [Babylon], king of lands.

These two last texts show that part of the capital including dates necessary for Isḫunnatu’s establishment in Kiš comes from Babylon, so we can suppose that Egibi’s family members were involved in those supplies. So, it seems that Isḫunnatu was still dependent on Babylon and on her master.


The various goods from Babylon or Kiš at the disposal of Isḫunnatu can be classified in two big categories and can help us to qualify the business establishment and the role of Isḫunnatu[8].

2.1. What are the characteristics of Isḫunnatu’s establishment ?

1) First, we notice that Isḫunnatu’s establishment is a place of consumption : Both texts from the Egibi archive quote various furniture including 3 tables, 10 chairs and lamp stands (Camb 330 & 331). Various dishes are quoted too: cups and bowl. At these tables, customers consumed especially beer. In Camb 331, Isḫunnatu receives a total of 50 vats-dannu of good quality beer. According to the different mentions, one vat-dannu could contain 1 kurru of beer or wine, that is to say 180 liters[9]. Isḫunnatu so has already 9 000 liters of liquids ready to be served.

A place of consumption

Furniture :– 3 tables (paššuru / gišbanšur)– 10 chairs (kussû / giš– 1 lamp stand (ingurēnu)
Dishes :– 7 bronze cups (kāsu / gú.zi)– 3 bronze bowls (baṭû)
Beer :– 50 vats-dannu of good quality beer

2) Second, the Isḫunnatu’s establishment is a place of production too. Indeed, Isḫunnatu also received 10 800 liters of dates and the material necessary for their transformation into alcohol: Fermenting vat as well as their wooden support and vat of decantation. 720 liters of kasû (mustard / cuscuta?) which enter the manufacturing of beer from dates, probably to perfume it. The presence of a hoe could be related to the exploitation of a kitchen garden near the business establishment. The various products of which could be prepared in a kettle[10].

A place of production

Beer :– 10 800 liters of dates– Fermenting vat (namzītu)– Stand for fermenting vat (kankannu)– Vat for decantation (namhāru)

– 720 liters of kasû (mustard or cuscuta)

Kitchen garden? :– Hoe (marru)– Kettle (mušahhinu)

3) Finally, the Isḫunnatu’s establishment is a place of accommodations, this being supported by the presence of 5 beds among the inventory.

A place of accommodation:

 – 5 beds (eršu / gišná)

So, the Isḫunnatu’s business establishment was a place of consumption of beer and also other food, a place of production and a place where people could sleep.

1.2. How to qualify this business establishment? What was the exact role of Isḫunnatu ?

There are at least two terms naming drinking establishments in Mesopotamia  : bīt sabi and bīt aštammi. The last term indicates more specifically an inn, a place where people can find accommodation as in the house of Isḫunnatu. These two sorts of drinking establishments are especially attested during the 2nd millenium BC[11]. Some historians consider them as places of prostitution. The house entrusted to Isḫunnatu does not escape this image. About the Isḫunnatu’s establishment, the presence of a woman, beds and alcoholic drinks – and the erotic images associated with – has probably excited the imagination of some scholars who connected these three elements automatically with prostitution. Indeed, in his article about “Prostitution in Ancient Mesopotamia”, J. Cooper gives only one example in the paragraph dedicated to brothels, madams and procurers: the case of Isḫunnatu. The question of her establishment as a place of prostitution is clearly asked : « Although beds can be used for lodgers as well as for prostitution, these texts at least show that sexual relations could easily be accommodated ». And the role of Isḫunnatu as procuress is evocated too: « Whether the proprietress was a madam, that is, whether she hired prostitutes or simply provided the venue, is unknown »[12].  These hypotheses about the nature of Isḫunnatu’s establishment and the woman’s role are not based on textual evidences but seem to be supported on a topos. Indeed, the link between drinking establishment and prostitution was strongly disputed by Julia Assante in various articles. She considers that « The tavern prostitute is a scholastic invention »[13] ; « These are just topoi, yet scholarship has been so sure of tavern prostitution that the tavern, éš-dam, bīt aštammi or bīt sabîm/sabîtim, has been all too often easily translated as bordello or brothel. Within this schema, the sabîtu(m), the female tavern keeper (…) becomes synonymous with the brothel madam »[14]. The author speaks about the scholarship’s misunderstanding of Mesopotamian texts and images. Now, I’m going to try to summarize three examples from Julia Assante’s studies :

1) First, Julia Assante considers that the link between drinking establishment and prostitution finds his main source inside the Inanna/Ishtar’s literature. In the Ancient literature, the goddess is a tavern-goer who is looking for sexual companionship. Assante remarks that “This common and spirited literary motif never once includes payment and it would be odd indeed if this powerful goddess of sex and love were financed by her favors”. The author also adds that “Furthermore, to base the brothel hypothesis on such texts ignores others versions of the tavern in which Inanna appears as a young bride or virginal sister”[15].

2) Second, about the following lines from the Code of Hammurabi : “If a nadītu or a ugbabtu, who does not reside within the gagû, should open (the door of) a tavern or enter a tavern for some beer, they shall burn that woman” (§ 110); some scholars have understood these lines as an attempt to prevent the nadītu from mixing with the tavern’s low life, especially prostitution, or from committing sexual offenses there. But, in this case, the prohibition seems to be more ritual than moral. These women were vulnerable of becoming impure because of contacts with elements in the tavern such as fermenting vats[16].

3) Third, the various explicit terracottas called “drinking scenes” were interpreted as realistic scenes of Tavern. Julia Assante considers that these objects representing the divine couple Inanna and Dummuzi bears a magic utility : “Since the constellation of Inanna’s erotic plaques and poems reverses the negative application of mating, marriage and seizure found in other magical literature, its potential as apotropaia seems to be more than a reasonable hypothesis. Plaques may be the physical remains of counteractive measures a householder might have taken to prevent the disastrous occurrence of « mating » with evil, in whatever form it might arrive”[17].

So, after taking into account contributions from the gender Studies, I’d rather attribute a neutral definition for Isḫunnatu’s establishment and I shall follow the definition given by Jacobsen and Kramer, more objective and less focused on supposed sexual aspects, who likened the éš-dam to a modern coffee-house or village-inn, a social center where people came to relax[18]. Indeed, I think that we have to consider the creation of Isḫunnatu’s inn as a part of a large plan managed by the Egibi to create new social relations in Kiš.


The main economic activities of the Egibi family take place in Babylon and in Borsippa. But, it seems that since the end of Nabonidus’ reign, members of the family tried to develop their business activities towards the city of Kiš. The family archive allows us to distinguish two periods.

1) First, during Nabonidus’ reign, the family possesses some properties in Kiš or in the area. For example, the dowry of Qibi-dumqi-ilat, sister of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, contains a farmland located on the way from Babylon to Kiš (Nbn 760). The family owns a house in Hursagkalamma which belongs to Itti-Marduk-balaṭu. He rents it to his brother Kalbaia during the 16th year of Nabonidus (Nbn 967). Kalbaia seems to manage a part of the economic activities of the Egibis in Kiš through a harranu-partenership with the other members of the family : « Kalbaia was operating a harranu-enterprise in Hursagkalamma, with personnel hired from Itti-Marduk-balaṭu and on property rented from him, and with financing provided by Iddin-Marduk [= father-in-law of Itti-Marduk-balaṭu]”[19].

2) During Cambyses’ reign, Itti-Marduk-balaṭu, leader of the Egibi family managed himself a new business plan in Kiš. We notice an important activity of investment in Kiš during the 6th year of Cambyses :

a) First, Itti-Marduk-balaṭu opens a city-inn for Isḫunnatu, his slave, the 11th day of kislīmu (ix) (Camb 330 & 331).

b) Second, he buys a home near the home of the « Chariot-driver » (bīt mukīl appāti) the 28th day of addaru (xii) (Camb 349). As Yoko Wataï notices in her PhD dissertation : « The Chariot-driver » occupied an important position in the army but also in the civil administration in Assyria. However, we cannot determine his function in the babylonian administration[20]. So, if the Chariot-driver kept an important function in Babylonia, it would seem that Itti-Marduk-balaṭu tried to get closer to important persons of Kiš.  We notice that Itti-Marduk-balaṭu led the same building policy in Babylon in the TE.Eki district where we find members of the royal administration among its neighbors[21]. The appropriation of a city-inn in Kiš for one of his slaves and the acquisition of a house next to an officer could be part of the same plan. As a place for meetings, the city-inn can be a way for the Egibi to create or to strengthen links of sociability with the inhabitants of Kiš. The inn can be a manner of being in the heart of the city and to know all the rumors and the free speech which is ran in this kind of place. It is maybe a place to meet people and the members of the city elite. The plan to develop the family’s business activities and to be closer to the Kiš elite seems to have been a success :

1) First, in a contract drafted in the 6th year of Darius, an inhabitant of Kiš must go to Babylon to find an arrangement with Marduk-naṣir-apli about a tax on his bow-land (Abraham 2004 : n°17). So, it seems that the chief of the Egibi family became a tax collector from some tax-payers living in Kiš.

2) Secondly, Marduk-naṣir-apli bounded links with the governor of Kiš. Indeed, the chief of the Egibis lent to him an important quantity of silver in Susa during the 16th year of Darius (Abraham 2004 : n°78). So, the leaders of the Egibi Family managed to create business links with the authorities of Kiš.

In the same time, at a lower level, Kalbaia continues his own economic activities in Kiš. Kalbaia seems to live most of the time in Kiš where he owns various lands. His implication earned him the nickname of « Kalbaia of Kiš » (CTMMA 3, 73). Present in Kiš, he maintains relations with Isḫunnatu’s establishment. And indeed, appears as the first witness in text n°5.


Isḫunnatu enjoys a large part of freedom in managing her business, appearing as debtor in text CTMMA 3, 65 and BM 30948. In these contracts, she acts by herself and she is the only one responsible for the repayment of the loans. But two facts shows that the members of the Egibi family exercise an attentive control over her economic activities :

1) Except text OECT 10, 239, all the other texts belong to the Egibi Archive found in Babylon. The Egibis keep and control all the transactions contracted by Isḫunnatu.

2) The presence of Kalbaia among witnesses in BM 30948 shows that Egibis attends the transactions involving Isḫunnatu. Their presence can be used as guarantee for the creditor.




Assante, J.

1998        « The kar-kid / harimtu, Prostitute or Single Woman ? A Reconsideration of the Evidence », UF 30 : 66.

2002        “Sex, Magic and the Liminal Body in the Erotic Art and Texts of the Old Babylonian Period”, Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East, Actes de la XLVIIe Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale (Helsinki, 2-6 July 2001), Simo Parpola and Robert M. Whiting, eds., Helsinki, 2002: 27-51.

 Cooper, J.

2006        « Prostitution », RlA 11 (1/2) : 12-21.

 Dandamaiev, M.

1984        Slavery in Babylonia. From Nabopolassar to Alexander the Great (626-331 B.C.). Northern Illinois University Press, Detroit.

 Gibson, McG.

1980        « Kiš », RlA : 613-620.

 Hackl, J.

2010        « Apprenticeship contracts », in : M. Jursa (dir.), Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC, AOAT 377, Münster : 700-715.

2011        « Neue spätbabylonische Lehrverträge aus dem British Museum und der Yale Babylonian Collection » (New Late Babylonian Apprenticeship Contracts from the British Museum and the Yale Babylonian Collection), AfO 52 : 77-97.

i. p.          « Frau Weintraube, Frau Heuschrecke und Frau Gut – Untersuchungen zu den babylonischen Namen von Sklavinnen in neubabylonischer und persischer Zeit », To be published in: Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 101. Pre-paper available on

 Jacobsen, T. & Kramer, S. N.

1953        « The Myth of Inanna and Bilulu », JNES 12 : 160-188.

 Joannès, F.

1992a     « Inventaire d’un cabaret » NABU 1992/64.

1992b     « Inventaire d’un cabaret (suite) » NABU 1992/89.

 Jursa, M. (dir.)

2010        Aspects of the Economic History of Babylonia in the First Millennium BC. Economic geography, economic mentalities, agriculture,  the use of money and the problem of economic growth (with contributions by J. Hackl, B. Janković, K. Kleber, E.E. Payne, C. Waerzeggers and M. Weszeli) (AOAT 377), Münster.

 Lion, B.

i. p.          « Les cabarets à l’époque paléo-babylonienne », in : C. Michel (éd.) L’alimentation dans   l’Orient ancien, de la production à la consommation, actes du Séminaire d’Histoire et d’Archéologie des Mondes Orientaux (SHAMO).

 McEwan, G.

1984        Late Babylonian Texts in the Ashmolean Museum (OECT 10), Oxford.

 Spar, I. & von Dassow, E.

2000        Private Archive Texts from the First Millenium B.C. (CTMMA 3), New York.

Watai, Y.

2012        Les maisons néo-babyloniennes d’après la documentation textuelle, thèse de doctorat, Université de Paris 1.

 Wunsch, C.

2000        « Neubabylonische Geschäftsleute und ihre Beziehungen zu Palast- und Tempel- verwaltungen : das Beispiel der Familie Egibi », dans : A. C. Bongenaar (éd.), Interpendency of institutions and private Entrepreneurs (Mos Studies 2 ; PIHANS 87), Leiden : 95-118.

[1] About apprenticeship contracts, cf. Hackl 2010 & 2011.

[2] These two texts were published and discussed in Joannès 1992a. The unpublished text BM 35140 kept in the British Museum which mentions Isḫunnatu (quoted in Hackl in press) could give additionnal information about the economic activities of the Egibi’s slave woman.

[3] For a summary of the excavations of Kiš, cf. Gibson 1980 : 613-620.

[4] Text published and discussed in Joannès 1992b.

[5] Hackl in press.

[6] McEwan 1984 : 1.

[7] Copy Bertin 2780.

[8] See the comments of F. Joannès about these goods (Joannès 1992a. & b).

[9] CAD, D : 98b-99a.

[10] Joannès 1992a.

[11] Lion in press.

[12] Copper 2006 : 20.

[13] Assante 1998 : 65.

[14] Assante 1998 : 66.

[15] Assante 1998 : 66.

[16] Hypothesis of S. Maul followed and developed by J. Assante (Assante 1998 : 67-68).

[17] Assante 2002 : 43.

[18] « We have assumed that the éš-dam represents the social center of the estate or village, a place in which the inhabitants would typically gather for talk and recreation after the end of work as in a modern coffee-house or village-inn » (Jacobsen & Kramer 1953 : 185a). In this case, one can wonder if it is not in this kind of establishment that the travelers could stay in Kiš (About journeys of Babylonians in Kiš, cf. Jursa (dir.) 2010 : 213-124).

[19] Spar & von Dassow 2000 : 123.

[20] Wataï 2012 : 301-302.

[21] Itti-Marduk-balaṭu hold several houses in the TE.Eki district. One of them is nearby the house of the Crown-prince (bīt-mār-šarri) (Nbn 50), another near a house belonging to a slave of Neriglissar and then Balthazzar (Nbn 9 & Nbn 50) and a third probably near a sepīru of prince Cambyses. Indeed, text Dar 379 enumerates the real estate property of the Egibi family in Babylon and Borsippa. The text specifies that Marduk-naṣir-apli, the representative of the fourth generation of the Egibis, possesses, among others, « a house situated in the TE.Eki district and which is nearby of Hašdaia, son of Gabbi-ili-šar-uṣur » (l.7 ). He is probably the son of Gabbi-ili-šar-uṣur, the scribe on parchment of prince Cambyses evoked in text Cyr 177 (this identification was proposed by Wunsch 2000: n. 23 p. 103-104).

(1) Women economic activities at home and outside home during the Ur III period

(1) Women economic activities at home and outside home during the Ur III period 

Bertrand Lafont (CNRS, Nanterre)

By way of introduction two preliminary remarks:

a)   First, and just as a reminder, about the basic structural element of ancient Mesopotamian economy and society, notably during the IIIrd millennium B.C.: the « e2 » (Akkadian bîtum, « household »). As a category, the « e2 » (comparable to the Greek oikos) describes every possible socio-economic unit: it could be a large institution, such as a palace, or a temple, or a royal estate; or it could be the home of a professional or even of a common independent family. The ordinary urban household consisted of the immediate family, perhaps some additional dependent relations, and less frequently, a handful of slaves. It was ordinarily a patriarchal household.

b)   Second, concerning our sources: the tens of thousands of administrative records available for the Ur III period (the one studied here) have significant processing constraints: their mass is as huge as the scope they cover is narrow, since they document mainly, through several large batches of archives, the administration of the state institutional sector in several provinces of the Sumerian kingdom of Ur.

In these archives we actually have thousands of references concerning work done by women. At Ur III, they were part of the workforce at the same level as men (guruš ≠ geme2). And we can appreciate their place  in the Sumerian society of that time according to the various categories revealed by the administrative records:

  • by genre:                     men / women
  • by age:                         children / adults / elders
  • by social status:          slaves / ordinary people / ruling class

But we know very little about the private and family life of these women. Our documentation leaves many crucial questions unanswered, particularly those concerning the kinship relations and the family structure of the population. As a matter of fact, most of the available information on Ur III women concerns aspects that will be studied in our next workshop (devoted to women’s work in public institutions and outside the family).


We can assert, without fear of being too much influenced by our own conceptions of what is a « family », that the Sumerian society of that time was based on nuclear families practicing monogamy, with a relatively small number of children (in contrast with what is known for royal families). Here is an example of such a small unit that constituted a family:

[1] UET 3, 93 (CDLI P136410). Ur, no date.

1. 1 Ur-ni9-gar sanga PN1, chief administrator: head of family
2. 1 Geme2dšul-gi-ra dam PN2, his wife,
3. 1 Lú-dnin-gá dumu-nita2 PN3 and PN4, his sons,
4. 1 Arad2-al-la dumu-nita2
5. 1 Geme2-é-e11 dumu-munus PN5, PN6 and PN7, his daughters.
6. 1 Dingir-in-na-kam dumu-munus
7. 1 Nam-nin-e-ba-ab-du7 dumu-munus
8. dam dumu ur-ni9-gar-me-éš They are the wife and the children of Ur-nigar,
9. é dnin-a-zi-mú-a-me-éš of the temple of Nin-azimu.

Was such a couple with five children “typical” for Neo-Sumerian time? Maybe, but we do not know, in any case, about the purpose of such a text, or about whether this household was in fact larger with relatives, slaves, and so on, as it is possible given the fact that the head of this family was a “notable” (sanga). Another example of such a nuclear family is proposed below: in the following text we see an entire family –in this case probably much lower on the social scale: it is likely an over-indebted family that can not meet its needs– selling and reducing itself to slavery to survive, a fairly well documented practice at that time:

[2] TMH NF 1-2, 53 (CDLI P134365), cf. Steinkeller,  FAOS 17, 20. Nippur, Šu-Suen 1.

1. [1 Ur]-du6-kù-ga PN 1,
2. 1 Dingir-bu-za dam-ni PN2, his wife,
3. 1 Nin-da-da PN3, PN4, PN5, his 3 children (2 girls, 1 boy),
4. 1 Nin-úr-ra-ni
5. 1 Ur-dšu-mah
6. dumu-ni-me
7. ⅔ ma-na 3 gín kù-babbar-šè for ⅔ mina and 3 shekels of silver
8. ní-te-ne-ne ba-ra-an-sa10-áš sold themselves

And we find one more illustration in these 2 lines of BAOM 2, 26 26 (CDLI P104889) that mention « 30 liters (of barley) for Geme-Eana, widow, mother of 5 (children) » (3 bán Geme2-é-an-na nu-ma-SU ama dumu 5).

In some of these households, women could have property of their own, and this could come from a marital gift. The next text shows how quite a rich father distributed gifts to his wife, his two daughters and his son, giving them slaves, livestock, and real estate:

[3] BM 105377 (CDLI P112634), cf. Wilcke, Elderly, p.49. Umma, Amar-Suen 4.

1. 1 gu4-numun g[u…] 1 ox …
2. 1 é [x] 1 house …
3. 1 Ur-sukkal 4 slaves
4. 1 Zi-NI-ti
5. 1 A-lí-ma?
6. 1 A-a-ha-ma-ti lú nam-ha-ni
7. [x]+1 u8 sila4 dù-a x pregnant sheeps
8. [x]+1 ud5 máš dù-a x pregnant goats
9. é? KI.ANki šu-du7-a-bi 1 house (in) KI.ANki with its furniture
10. 1 na4kín šu sè-ga 1 millstone with its upper stone:
11. Ur-ni9-gar-ke4 Ur-nigar
12. dam-na in-na-an-ba gave as a gift (all this) to his wife 
13. 10 gín har kù-babbar 10 sheqels of ring silver and
14. 1 Geme2dšara2 1 slave: gifts for Baza his daughter.
15. níg-ba Ba-za dumu-munus
16. 1 Eš18-dar-ì-lí 1 slave: gift for Ninbatuku his daughter.
17. níg-ba Nin-ba-tuku dumu-munus
18. 1 [Lugal]-ušurx 1 slave: gift for Hala-abbana (his son ?)
19. níg-ba Ha-la?-ab-ba-na
20. Ur-ni9-gar-ke4 dumu-ne-ne in-na-ba Ur-nigar gave as a gift (all this) to his children
(Witnesses and date)

The reasons for such gifts given by the family head are unknown. It could have been an arrangement before his death, before a journey, or before going to war, to protect his family. The trial displayed below shows again that this independent property of women could come from a marital gift. In that case, we see a son who turned against his mother after his father’s death, demanding a cow and two slaves. The woman denied the request, saying she had received these goods as a personal gift during the lifetime of her husband:

[4] Molina, Fs Owen : 213 n°9 (CDLI P375930). Umma, no date.

1. Du-gu-da-ga Dugudaga
2. Geme2-gu ama-ni-da di in-da-du11 brought a legal case against Gemegu his mother
3. 1 áb-máh Geme2-gú-eden-na mu-bi-im – 1 milk-producing cow whose name is Gemeguedena
4. 1 sag-nita2 Šu-na mu-ni-im – 1 male slave whose name is Šuna
5. 1 sag-munus Ma-tu mu-ni-im – 1 female slave whose name is Matu
6. 1 Geme2-gu dam-gu10 ma-an-ba             bí-in-du11 “My husband gave them as a gift to me” Gemegu declared

Of course, large family households (é) or princely domains of larger size, or estates of several wives belonging to provincial governors are also well known in our archival texts. One interesting case concerns the household of the son of the governor of Girsu, early in the reign of Amar-Suen. In the inventory made ​​of his household (Maekawa 1996 = P102665), the following were recorded:

  • 5 hectares orchard
  • 200 slaves (half of them being women)
  • 3700 heads of livestock
  • 250 heads of cattle
  • objects in silver, non precious metal, stone, wood, and reed
  • clothes, drapery, and skins
  • perishable goods

Apparently, his wealth originated mainly in animal husbandry. But a more detailed look at the description of this large household estate (inventoried on the occasion of seizure proceedings, as shown by K. Maekawa) shows that more than 200 garments, nearly 500 kg of wool and large quantities of oil, honey, wine, cheese, dates and aromatics were also counted. The list of these goods, together with common sense, prompts us to conclude that the women in this household, including maids and slaves, were the ones who transformed all of these raw materials into the products needed for everyday life. These women were probably busy first of all with providing members of the household with their basic needs in terms of food, clothing, and care. But the problem is that their work remains « invisible » as there is never any mention of it in our archives.

The domestic area was also probably the place for other productive and economically significant activities, but, once again, we have very little proof of this in the written documentation, because of its nature (see the introduction above). However some texts do exist, documenting a real productive activity involving women within a family home. In the following administrative tablet we can see six men and two women (the second one with her child), in the household of the governor of Girsu; they all received food rations for producing beer within the household during one month:

[5] MVN 6, 147 (CDLI P114602). Girsu, Lagaš II, no date.

1. 0,1.0 Má-gur8-re 60 liters (monthly ration): Magure
2. 0,1.0 Me-ni-šu-na 60 liters: Menišuna
3. 0,1.0 Ur-dba-ba6 60 liters: Ur-Baba
4. 0,1.0 Ur-dlugal-bàn-da 60 liters: Ur-Lugalbanda
5. 0,1.0 Ur-zigum-ma 60 liters: Ur-ziguma
6. 0,1.0 É-[…]-da 60 liters: E-[…]-da
7. 0,0.3. Nin-bara2-ge-si 30 liters: Nin-baragesi
8. 0,0.3. Geme2-ŠIM?-su4 30 liters: Geme-ŠIM-su, her child.
9. dumu-ni
10. še-bi 1,2.1. gur Total : 430 (sic!) liters of barley.
11. kaš-a gub-ba-me They are involved in the beer (production).
12. ugula Sipa-da-rí Supervisor : Sipadari.
13. giri3-sè-ga ensi2-me They are personnel of the governor.

The question that can be asked here is whether or not this activity of producing beer exceeded the goal to meet the domestic needs of the governor of Girsu. But in reality, in the Ur III period, we never see any text mentioning surplus from a domestic production that would feed some external economic channels of distribution.


We must first assert that there was no automatic assignment of women to the domestic sphere alone. On the contrary, it appears clearly that some women could have professional skills equal to those of men, and that they could exercise them outside the family home. We will illustrate this point by examining a list of women’s professions and specializations recorded in the archives of Garšana and Irisagrig, texts that bring some new evidence for the role that women played in Ur III society. Thanks to these new data, we can now assert that women held many positions hitherto documented only for men. These specialized occupations include:

  • geme2-azlag2                                 (cf. male lú-azlag2, « fuller », « washerman »)
  • geme2/munus-muhaldim           (cf. male muhaldim, « cooker »)
  • geme2-ì-du8                                  (cf. male ì-du8, « doorkeeper »)
  • geme2-kisal-luh                             (cf. male kisal-luh, « (temple) sweeper »)
  • nar-munus                                      (cf. male nar, « singer », « musician »)
  • munus-a-zu                                 (cf. male a-zu, « physician »)
  • munus-dub-sar                         (cf. male dub-sar, « scribe »)
  • munus-gudu4                             (cf. male gudu4, « purification priest »)

The last three professions (in bold) are particularly interesting, as they are highly specialized and as they were not previously attested much for women.

Again in Garšana, a quick look at the female population of the household headed by princess Simat-Ištaran (a sister of king Šu-Suen) shows that there were six basic female occupations frequently mentioned in this archive (cf. Owen & Kleinerman, CUSAS 4, p. 721). They are very common and correspond to what is expected for a household of this kind, but it is noteworthy that these women were in fact often performing tasks far from their first specialty, as shown by the following table that compares titles qualifying the registered women against the actual activities which they were involved in and for which the tablets were written:

Professional occupations qualifying women in Garšana texts

Real occupations recorded for these women in administrative Garšana texts

 – geme2-àr-ra                “grinders”     – agricultural work
 – geme2-kikken2            “millers”     – construction work
 – geme2gešì-sur-sur      “oil pressers”     – transportation & boat towing
 – geme2-gu                     “spinners”     – flour & food processing
 – geme2-uš-bar               “weavers”     – mourners

As we can see, there were real specialties and specific skills for women (here at the most basic level, thus essentially for food processing and textile production, linked without doubt with their daily tasks) and that could be used to categorize these women. But what we observe is that these women had also to perform further productive activities (agricultural work, boat towing, construction work, and so on), probably for the corvée duty to which they were regularly forced part-time, at the same level as men. So it seems that we can distinguish between categorized female occupations and the variety of works actually performed by these women.

Therefore, from an economic point of view, we can assert that the role played by these women was multifaced, both inside and outside their family house. Nevertheless, in Ur III all women did not systematically belong to an official or family “e2”. Thus, we do find frequent mention of women qualified as geme2-kar-KID: these women were not necessarily “prostitutes” as often said, but rather independent women, not living under male authority, or not part of a patriarchal household. They had to support themselves in any number of ways (and some may in fact have been prostitutes) [see Assante 1998, Cooper 2010, Démare-Lafont s.p.].

Finally let us consider the case of women who could find themselves alone and powerless because of the death of their husbands. If they did not have the means of economic independence, they were then taken in charge by the institutional sector that provided their sustenance in exchange for servile labor. This is shown for example by the  following brief administrative text where the wife of a man, left alone after the death of her (executed?) husband, is sent to the (weaving) ergastulum:

[6] TCTI 2, 3658 (CDLI P132869). Girsu, Šu-Suen 1.

1. 5 ⅓ ma-na siki Expenditure of 5,33 mines of wool
2. mu Ur-diškur ba-gaz-šè because Ur-Iškur has been killed
3. dam-ni é-uš-bar and his wife has entered the weaving house.
4. ba-an-ku4-ra-šè
5. zi-ga


Now some words concerning aspects of the management autonomy that women could experience. First, let us mention as a reminder the case of some well-known women managers of large state institutions in Sumer during the IIIrd millennium, as in the é-munus in Presargonic Lagaš, or as in the estates managed by queen Šulgi-simti in Drehem(?) or by princess Simat-Ištaran in Garšana during the Ur III period (see Weiershäuser 2008). These cases are not exceptional and Law codes as well as historical texts often consider situations where women were managers of family or private estates at that time. It is explicitly considered for example in the Statue B of Gudea (// see also Cyl. B xviii 8-9, and §B2-B3 of the Laws of Ur-Namma in Civil’s new edition):

[7] Gudea, Satue B

vii 44.  é dumu-nita2 nu-tuku                         For a household not having a son
vii 45.  dumu-munus-bi ì-bí-la-ba              I let the daughter (of the house) become its heir
vii 46.  mi-ni-kux(KWU634)

And again in §E4 of the Laws of Ur-Namma or in §b and §18 of the Code of Lipit-Eštar, where it is explicitly stated that a man as well as a woman could manage an estate:

[8] CUN, §E4 (according to Civil’s new edition)

tukum-bi lú ba-úš                                              If a man dies,
dam-PI-ni ibila-1-gin7 é-a hé-dím          his wife will act in the house like a single heir

[9] CLE, §18

tukum-bi lugal é-a ù nin é-a-ke4                   If the master or the mistress of an estate

And this is reflected also in some trial texts, as the following which treats a dispute between two women:

[10] Molina, Fs Owen n°1, p.201-202 (CDLI P200743). Umma, no date.

1. Geme2dsuen-ke4 Geme-Suen said to the wife of Ur-lugal the gardner
2. dam Ur-lugal santana-ka that she had a credit of 2 minas of silver with her
3. 2 ma-na kù-babbar in-da-tuku in-na-du11 (= the wife of Ur-lugal) …

In his synthesis on Ancient Near Eastern Law, Ray Westbrook (Westbrook 2003a) has shown that this women’s private property could have 3 sources in the Ur III period:

  • dowries (sag-rig7) received from their father
  • gifts given by their husband (as seen above)
  • personal purchases made ​​on their own property

Therefore, we see quite frequently women involved in lending, borrowing, buying or selling things, silver, livestock, slaves, orchards or houses, just as did men, as illustrated by the following:

 a) Women lending and borrowing: [11] NRVN 1, 96 (CDLI P122311). Nippur, Šu-Suen 6.

1. ½ ma-na 2 gín kù-babbar ½ mana and 2 shekels of silver,
2. máš 5 gín 1 gín-[ta] 1 shekel per each 5 shekels is the interest;
3. ki Geme2dli-si4-na-ta Amasaga and her son Mašgula
4. Ama-sa6-ga received it
5. ù Maš-gu-la dumu-nita from Geme-Lisina
6. šu ba-an-ti-eš

b) Women buying and selling: [12] FAOS 17, n°117* (CDLI P116217). Nippur, Ibbi-Suen 2.

1. 1 sag munus En-né-dla-az mu-ni-im 1 female slave, her name is Enne-Laz
2. 1 gín igi 3-gál kù-babbar for 1,33 shekel of silver, her full price,
3. sa10 ti-la-ni-šè
4. ki Ša-at-dsuen-ta from Šat-Suen
5. Geme2dnanna-[ke4] Geme-Nanna
6. [in-ši-sa10] bought.

Several examples can also be found that show women (often widows[1]) disposing of their property, without interference from the men of their family. For example in this text concerning a widow in charge of the subsistence field (šuku) of her deceased husband. The land was linked to a duty to perform services (dusu). And this duty was given away to a man in return for a payment in silver, but it seems that the land remained in the hands of the widow.

[13] NATN 258 (CDLI P120956) [See Démare-Lafont, Féodalités, 535, and Wilcke, Elderly, 55-56]. Nippur, Šu-Suen 1.

1. 1(eše3) 3(iku) GÁN Concerning 3,22 ha of field,
2. šuku Lugal-KA-gi-na-ka subsistence field of Lugal-KAgina,
3. Geme2dsuen dam-ni Geme-Suen his wife
4. ù Péš-tur-tur dumu-munus-ni and Pešturtur his daughter
5. Lugal-hé-gál-ra approached Lugal-hegal
6. igi-ne-ne in-ši-gar-ru-éš
7. šuku-gá dusu-bi gùr-ba-ab She said to him: “Bear the
8. in-na-an-du11 obligation of my subsistence field”.
9. Lugal-hé-gál-e Lugal-hegal
10. mu šuku-ra-šè 5 gín kù-babbar gave to Geme-Suen, wife of Lugal-KAgina
11. Geme2dsuen dam Lugal-KA-gi-na-ra and to Pešturtur his daughter
12. ù Péš-tur-tur dumu-munus-a-ni-ir 5 shekels of silver for the subsistence field
13. in-na-an-šúm

Another important text on the same topic illustrates the right of widows, but this time also addresses the thorny issue of land ownership. Without entering the debate over the status of agricultural land during the Ur III period, it seems that “in itself this text is sufficient to prove the existence of arable in private hands” (van Driel, quoted in Garfinkle, CUSAS 22, p.21 n.17 [contra Civil? [2]])

[14] NATN 302 (CDLI P121000) [see Owen, Widows’ rights, ZA 70 = Lafont, RJM n°10 =  FAOS 17: 203]. Nippur, Šu-Suen 8.

1. 1 Á-la-la Alala
2. 1 Ur-ddun a-ne-bi-<da?> together with Ur-Dun
3. ibila-me were heirs
4. é? ad-da-ba íb-ba (and) had divided the estate of their father.
5. Ur-ddun ba-úš (Then) Ur-Dun died.
6. Geme2dsuen dam Ur-ddun-ke4 Geme-Suen, the wife of Ur-Dun,
7. [Á]-lá-lá-<da?> entered into litigation with Alala
8. [mu a-šà] é níg ha-[la-ba Ur]-ddun-šè under the juridiction of Dada,
9. [šu] Da-da the governor of Nippur, concerning
10. ensi2 Nibruki-ka the field, the house, the furnishing (representing)
11. [di] in-da-du11 the inheritence portion of Ur-Dun.

[NB : the restitution a-šà in the break of line 8 is quite certain because of the following lines of the text, not given here but that mention a-šà]

One last example will be proposed that goes in the same direction: an action brought by a widow to de­fend her property and rights after the death of the family head, facing his heirs:

 [15] ITT 3, 5279 (CDLI P111162). [See Lafont, RJM n°12, and Wilcke, Elderly, 50-51]. Girsu, Šu-Suen 4.

1. di til-la Final judgement.
2. 2 ⅚ sar é KUM.DÚR 2 sar and ⅚ of a house-[x] :
3. In-na-sa6-ga Innasaga,
4. dam Du-du dumu Ti-ti-ka-ke4 wife of Dudu the son of Titi, bought it with
5. kù šu-na-ta bar igi-gál-ni in-sa10 silver from her own hand on her own initiative.
6. Du-du a-ba-ti-la:da Innasaga testified under oath that :
7. é-bi Ur-é-ninnu dumu Du-du-ke4 in-gíd – together with Dudu, while he was still alive
8. mu In-na-sa6-ga in-sa10-a-šè    Ur-Eninu, son of Dudu, measured this house,
9. dub é sa10-a-bi – because Innasaga had bought (the house),
10. ki In-na-sa6-ga-ta ba-an-sar    the actual tablet concerning the house purchase
11. é kù šu-na-ta-àm in-sa10-a    was written from Innasaga’s side (=place),
12. níg-gur11 Du-du la-ba-ši-lá-a – the house had been bought with her own silver
13. In-na-sa6-ga – nothing of Dudu’s has been paid for it.
14. nam-erim2-àm
15. 1 Nin-a-na dumu Ni-za kù-dím Dudu had given Ninanna, child of the goldsmith
16. Du-du In-na-sa6-ga dam-ni-ir Niza, as a gift to Innasaga.
17. in-na-ba
18. egir5 Du-du-ta After Dudu’s death, Dudu’s heirs litigated this
19. šu Arad2dnanna sukkal-mah ensi2-ka under the juridiction of the sukkalmah
20. ì-bí-la Du-du im-ma-a-gi4-eš and governor Arad-Nanna


In traditional societies, the division of labor is established according to two essential criteria: age and gender. It is the traditional view that children keep herds, elders stay at home while the adults hunt, fish, work in the fields and ensure collective tasks. Some occupations are reserved for women besides their management of everything related to the domestic space. On their side, men have their own occupations considered as typically male. It is clear however that this scheme does not fit exactly the situation as it has just been described for Ur III.

Indeed, during the Ur III period, the domestic area was clearly the place of productive and eco­no­mically significant activities for women, enabling them at first to provide mem­bers of the household with their basic needs for food, clothing and care. But in this regard, it must be noticed that we never see any surplus of goods produced at home by women that could have fed external economic channels (even if, on that point, attention must be paid of course to the argument from silence…) [3]

We must not imagine, however, any assignment of women to the domestic area only. For several decades it was popular in scholarship to see an opposition of public/private along male/female gender lines. This approach asserted that women were reduced to the domestic, private sphere in their activities, while men acted in the public sphere. This view is now outdated, especially since progress in gender studies has shown that family, marriage or household are not spheres specific to women and that women were not totally defined by their roles within families.

Thus, the concept of professional skill or specialization was real for women as well as for men, and we can see both men and women doing their job inside or outside the domestic sphere, for various tasks of production or service, including in the framework of the corvée obligation which made no gender distinction (and we can note that women were employed to do the same hard works as men: in the fields, in towing boats, in hauling bricks, etc.).

As we just saw it (but this situation has been known since quite a long time), women could own property and manage it freely. They had full legal, economic rights, with the same management autonomy as men: they could sell, buy, lend, borrow, sue for economic redress, all with the same legal capacity. As a witness of such a situation, we can also mention that more than a hundred of seals are known to have been owned by women in Ur III.

We can therefore assert with Marc Van de Mieroop (Van de Mieroop 1989) that the participation of women in the economic sphere was real, separate from their husbands and on the same terms, although on a smaller scale. And that, from an economic point of view, Ur III women were not necessarily dependent on men: the possible inequality of women « was one of scale, not of area of activity » (ibidem).

Ultimately, are these data sufficient to validate or invalidate the commonly asserted idea that the living conditions of women deteriorated over time in Mesopotamian history after the IIIrd millennium? At least it is possible to assert that, during the Ur III period, these conditions were more or less the same as those of men.


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Démare-Lafont, Sophie s.p.       “Women”, in A Handbook of Ancient Mesopotamia (G. Rubio éd.), à paraître

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Heimpel, Wolfgang 2010     “Left to themselves. Waifs in the Time of the Third Dynasty of Ur”. In A. Kleirnermann and J. M. Sasson, eds., Why Should Someone Who knows Something Conceal it? Cuneiform Studies in Honor of David I. Owen on His 70th Birthday. Bethesda MD: CDL Press, pp. 9-13.

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[1] Note that among so many administrative texts of Ur III, only 8 mention widows (nu-mu-SU, nu-ma-SU, Akk. almattu).
[2] According to Miguel Civil, “women could not inherit agricultural land” (CUSAS 17, p. 268, concerning CUN §B3). But it seems that we have some attestations, since Old Sumerian times until Ur III, of women holding agricultural land inherited from their husband or their father. And we can find some examples where women (widows?) can dispose of their land property without interference from men of their family. On the same topic “fields and women”, see also the difficult letter of the “Ur III angry wife” (MVN 11, 168 = CDLI P116181, studied by Owen, Fs Gordon 2, 1982, Neumann TUAT NF 3, Hallo COS 3, p. 295, and Michalowski, CKU, p. 16). And add finally the remarks of P. Michalowski in Letters, p. 78, with the letter TCS 1, 229 = Michalowski, Letters 131 (CDLI P145730).
[3] R. Westbrook (introduction to the colloquium Women and Property): “The products of a woman’s industry, in particular of weaving, are remarkable for their virtual absence from the Ancient Near East sources as a form of property. (…) Nonetheless, there is ample archaeological evidence for the importance of weaving in the domestic context. (…) The ANE situation is to be contrasted with the Greek sources, which provide ample evidence of both the economic and property aspects of women’s work”.