(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).
1. WOMEN IN FAMILIES AND PRIVATE HOUSEHOLDS
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:
 UET 3, 93 (CDLI P136410). Ur, no date.
|1. 1 Ur-ni9-gar sanga||PN1, chief administrator: head of family|
|2. 1 Geme2–dšul-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:
 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|
|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:
 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:|
|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 Geme2–dšara2||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:
 Molina, Fs Owen : 213 n°9 (CDLI P375930). Umma, no date.
|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:
 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.|
|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.
2. WOMEN OCCUPATIONS AT HOME AND OUTSIDE HOME
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|
|– geme2–gešì-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:
 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.|
3. MANAGEMENT AUTONOMY FOR WOMEN INSIDE FAMILIES
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):
 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:
 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
 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:
 Molina, Fs Owen n°1, p.201-202 (CDLI P200743). Umma, no date.
|1. Geme2–dsuen-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:  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 Geme2–dli-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:  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|
Several examples can also be found that show women (often widows) 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.
 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. Geme2–dsuen 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”.|
|10. mu šuku-ra-šè 5 gín kù-babbar||gave to Geme-Suen, wife of Lugal-KAgina|
|11. Geme2–dsuen 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|
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? ])
 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. Geme2–dsuen 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:
 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] :|
|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.|
|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.|
|18. egir5 Du-du-ta||After Dudu’s death, Dudu’s heirs litigated this|
|19. šu Arad2–dnanna 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…) 
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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