Craft Manufacture and Production

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Craft Manufacture and Production


Technology. Technological innovation, principally in the area of agriculture, played a critical role in the development of crafts and other produced or manufactured goods. The introduction of the seeder-plow and other farming implements, such as metal sickles, allowed for the planting and harvesting of large fields without the need to maintain a large permanent labor force. This development had two significant impacts on manufacturing and production. By not having to grow their own sustenance, some members of the population were able to specialize in forms of production not related directly to producing food. These individuals became the craftsmen and artisans of Mesopotamia. Technological innovations in agriculture also enabled the large landowning institutions, the temple and the palace, to accumulate agricultural surpluses that they could then use for capital investments in specialized crafts production and in creating markets for their manufactured products through long-distance trade. The metalsmith is a good example of a specialized craftsman; his skills were not available in every household, and the products of his workshop were indispensable for the evolving technologies in farming, transportation, and warfare.

Main Areas of Production. Throughout Mesopotamian history, textiles were made mainly out of wool from sheep and, to a lesser extent, linen from flax. Each household made textiles on a small scale for the family’s own use, and institutions produced them on a large scale for commercial ventures. Large-scale industrial production required a massive, permanent, trained workforce; temple factory records from the Ur III period (circa 2112 - circa 2004 b.c.e.) list more than six thousand workers, mostly women, along with their children. At all times throughout Mesopotamian history, textiles were the most economically significant area of production, followed by food processing (for example, beer brewing, bread baking, and cheese making), metalworking, and ceramics production. In general, crafts requiring imported materials probably were worked more in institutional settings, whereas production using domestic materials took place more often in private households.

Large-Scale, Institution-Sponsored Production. Production in the “public sector,” the institutional households of temple and palace, is far better documented than production in the “private sector” (private or family households). Institutional production, collection, and redistribution of agricultural and manufactured goods during the period of the Ur III dynasty (circa 2112 - circa 2004 b.c.e.) is by far the best documented and represents the most bureaucratically organized system. The next-best-documented institutionally sponsored production took place in Babylonia in the seventh and sixth centuries b.c.e. Thanks to their ability to accumulate agricultural surpluses, institutions had capital to invest in large-scale projects and trading ventures, and they had access to imported resources. Large-scale production provided a setting for experimentation in new methods as well as the development of expertise within narrow areas of specialization.

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This expertise was then passed on to other members of the production workforce and must also be counted among the resources of the institution.

Crafts Production in the Ur III State. One unanticipated by-product of the Ur III bureaucracy was the accumulation of six to seven thousand administrative texts. Evidence from Ur III archives shows that bureaucrats charged with overseeing state-dominated production were constantly trying to standardize and classify production. One Ur III archive comprises the documents of a single administrator who was responsible for overseeing craftsmen working with wood and ivory, silver and gold, fine stones, copper, leather, rope, and reeds.

Expertise and Training. The transmission of expertise was primarily oral, although some cuneiform “manuals” have survived—including instructions for beer brewing, food preparation, glassmaking, perfume making, and horse training. Apprenticeship contracts are well known from the Neo-Babylonian period (mid-first millennium b.c.e.) and rarely from earlier periods. Most such agreements were probably made orally. There is some evidence that cities had established crafts quarters, which supports a hypothesis that craftsmanship was passed from father to son. Prosopo-graphic studies of archival texts from the southern city of Uruk during the Neo-Babylonian (fifth century b.c.e.) and Seleucid (third-second centuries b.c.e.) periods demonstrate the continuation of the practice of particular crafts—such as jeweler, leatherworker, smith, and builder—within given families over a period of three or more generations.


Michael Jursa, Prywatyzacja i zysk?: Przedsiebiorcy a gospodarka instytuc-jonalna w Mezopotamii od 3 do 1 tysiaclecia przed Chr [Privatization or Profit? Entrepreneurs and Institutional Households in Mesopotamia from the Third to the First Millennium B.C.] (Poznan: Poznan Society for the Advancement of the Arts and Sciences, 2002).

Hans Martin Kümmel, Familie, BerufundAmt im spatbabylonischen Uruk: prosopographische Untersuchungen zu Berufsgruppen des 6.Jahrhunderts v. Chr. in Uruk, Abhandlungen der Deutschen Orient-Gesellschaft, 20 (Berlin: Mann, 1979).

Marc Van de Mieroop, Crafts in the Early Isin Period: A Study of the Isin Craft Archive from the Reigns of Isbi-Erra and Sū-Illisu (Leuven: Departement Oriëntalistiek, 1987).

Hartmut Waetzoldt, “Compensation of Craft Workers and Officials in the Ur III Periods,” in Labour in the Ancient Near East, edited by Marvin A. Powell, American Oriental Series, volume 68 (New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1987), pp. 117–141.