The Workforce

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The Workforce


Sources of Information. Evidence about the Mesopota-mian workforce comes from various bureaucratic documents, chiefly lists of workers and their compensation (rations or wages), as well as correspondence among administrators concerning the need for workers, problems with workers, or the release of workers from their duties. As with other aspects of the social and economic history of Mesopotamia, the conclusions of modern scholars are limited by the available source materials, which provide uneven documentation for different time periods and geographic locations. Consequently, the researcher must think in terms of individual case studies for particular times and places rather than draw general conclusions that apply to the entire span of Mesopota-mian civilization. Two distinct groups of written documents have been particularly informative for reconstructing aspects of the early ancient Mesopotamian workforce: some 1,800 tablets dating to the Pre-Sargonic period (circa 2350 b.c.e.) from a temple in Girsu, the capital of the city-state of Lagash, and the tens of thousands of tablets generated by the bureaucracy of the Ur III state (circa 2112 - circa 2004), which seems to have functioned as an all-encompassing statewide household that collected and redistributed the production of its members. Records from the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.) document a system whereby citizens owed a month’s labor to the crown every year.

Makeup of the Workforce. Information about the makeup of the workforce can be gleaned from the different categories in which individual laborers were grouped for administrative record keeping. Workers are distinguished in the written sources according to sex, age (adults, children, old men), social status (owners of their own means of production, dependents, slaves, prisoners of war, people of foreign origins), and physical ability (for example, blinded workers or those who work “full-output,” “half-output,” or even “one-quarter output“). Deceased workers are also listed and designated as such. The sources also include native distinctions that scholars still do not fully understand. Some of these categories overlap; for example, an individual worker classified as an old man in one text may well be grouped under “those who perform according to half-production” in another. Some sources suggest that at certain times adult male prisoners of war may have been blinded before they were put to work in the fields.

Compensation. Written sources indicate that workers were compensated for their labor with consumable goods for their basic sustenance—primarily grain, but also wool, oil, and occasionally fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish. For the most part, people received measured allotments of barley. Because the majority of the population was employed in some part of the agricultural sector and because barley was the chief crop, one can say that people were paid for their work “in kind.” Rates of compensation varied according to the position held (degree of skill/experience), sex, and social status. The regular ration of barley for an adult man was reckoned at sixty liters per month.

The Temple Household in the Pre-Sargonic Period. The archives of the temple of the goddess Ba’u, the second-largest temple in Girsu, have yielded some 1,800 tablets spanning some thirty years, including the reign of Uru’inimgina (circa 2380 b.c.e.), a ruler well known for his social and economic reforms. While still not completely understood, these tablets provide a picture of the economic activities of a major institutional household. Some of these tablets are rations lists with different categories of people. The most important distinction is between men who were given the use of farmland to sustain their own households and others (men, women, disabled persons, and captives) who did not receive land. The usufruct (legal right to use) of temple land is one kind of prebend, and traditionally this right was inheritable. During the first seven to eight months of the year these men worked their land allotments and sustained themselves from the produce. The “men who receive (land) allotments” were given monthly barley rations only during the last four to five months of the year—the months when the agricultural cycle did not require their labor. Presumably, they owed their labor to the temple in exchange for the usufruct of the land they were allotted. When those fields did not require their labor, they worked for the temple and were compensated during those months with barley rations. Workers who did not receive labo r,they worked for the temple and were given monthly rations year-round. Of particular interest are the workers in the temple weaving enterprise. The Ba’u temple employed a large number of women, who in temple lists are organized into work “gangs” of twenty, along with their children. Modern scholars do not know where the women came from, but in year seven of Uru’inimgina’s reign, more than half of the women are identified as “(newly) purchased slaves.” Women supervising work gangs and holding positions that required higher skills received more rations, as did women with more children than others.


The following passages from a large clay tablet are excerpts from an evaluation of the workforce dedicated to collecting and processing wood and grass products in the province of Umma. Ration lists for the Umma foresters are attested only for the winter-spring season, during which the central administration of Umma provided them with barley and wool. During the rest of the year, they were likely working land that they held in prebend from the state in return for their foresting duties. The inspection was conducted under the authority of A’a-kala, governor of Umma, to determine how much barley and wool was needed to support the foresters during the next working season. There were thirty forests, divided into three groups of ten, each group under the supervision of a different foreman. The text lists sixty men and their ranks. (For example, A-class corresponds to foreman; B-class to head worker.) The text is dated to the twelfth month (she-kin-tar in Sumerian and addaru in Akkadian, the equivalent of February-March in the Julian calendar) of the eighth year of the reign of king Amar-Suena (circa 2046 - circa 2038 b.c.e.)—that is, February-March 2039 b.c.e.

Deceased: Urtarluh (replaced by) E’urbidug, A-class worker, the foreman,

Girni-ishag, C-class worker, his sons,

assigned to forest no. 1;

Dugani, M-class worker,

assigned to forest no. 2;

Ka-Shara, B-class worker,

Lugal-inim-gina, E-class worker, his son, assigned to forest no. 3;

old: Ur-abba, (replaced by) Lu-Shara, B-class worker, his son,

assigned to forest no. 4;

old; Ur-abba, (replaced by) Lu-Sharra, B-class worker, his son,

deceased: Lu-Shara (replaced by) Atanah, E-class worker, his sons

assigned to forest no. 5.

Their barley: 75 seahs to be alloted per month;

their wool: 4 mina to be alloted per year.

Inspection of the conscripted soldiers/workers of the forester (i.e., the overseer of the forest sector);

(under the authority of) A’a-kala, governor of Umma;

via Sagta-kugzu, the messenger,

Lu-Inanna, the messenger,

and Lu-Nanna, son of Ka-Shara.

12th month; year eight of Amar-Suena, king.

Source: Piotr Steinkeller, “The Foresters of Umma: Toward a Definition of Ur Labor,” in Labor in the Ancient Near East, edited by Marvin A. Powell, American Oriental Series, volume 68 (New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1987), text 41, pp. 107–110.

Ur III Workers. Because of its micro-managed bureaucratic economic apparatus, the Ur III state left even more detailed evidence about its workforce than Pre-Sargonic Lagash. As for the Pre-Sargonic period, much information comes from written sources at Lagash, principally ration and wage lists, which identify workers according to age, sex, and job responsibility. State workers included men, women, and children. In general, individuals with greater responsibilities—or with the task of generating higher-quality products—received correspondingly greater compensation. By and large, the productive activities and system of compensation known from Pre-Sargonic Lagash seems to have continued into the Ur III period. What distinguishes the Ur III state from its predecessor is the ceaseless drive of the Ur III bureaucracy to document and standardize all aspects of economic activity. During the Ur III period, weaving continued to be a major temple enterprise, and one text records a payment of oil rations to 6,406 women weavers in the province of Lagash. In its agricultural enterprises, the Ur III state employed two categories of workers, “farmers” and “workers.” Persons designated in the lists as “farmers“—who nonetheless seem to have lived in the cities—were considered permanent full-time agricultural workers. “Farmers” were compensated to sustain their households in one of three ways: by direct payments or “rations” of consumable goods, by allotments of land, or by opportunities to rent land from the institution on a share-cropping basis. As in Pre-Sargonic Lagash, during the months when they did not need to work the land, “farmers” could be put to work on other jobs for the state, such as canal and road maintenance. Some seventy-five texts from the province of Umma document the activities of the so-called Foresters of Umma, around sixty men employed in the gathering and processing of wood and grasses. Close study of the Umma foresters supports other, scattered evidence that sons succeeded their fathers in receiving the same land allotments for cultivation and the same task assignments for the off months of the agricultural year.

Obligatory State Service and the “Corvée.”. In texts from the Old Babylonian period, the Akkadian word ilku is used to designate different features of obligatory service. The word is applied to work performed on land held by a higher authority, work performed for a higher authority in exchange for the usufruct of land, delivery of part of the yield of such land as a tax payment to a higher authority (and—by extension—payment of money or manufactured objects in lieu of agricultural produce), and finally the land itself on which the ilku-service is performed. The expression kasap ilku (literally, “ilku-silver“) denotes money that the holder of ilku-land could pay in lieu of performing his required service. The work obligation due the state varied. Individuals who apparently possessed the means to support themselves were obligated to work for only a short time and ostensibly were free to work for themselves for the rest of the year. Modern historians use a French word, corvee (“forced labor“), to designate such a system. Under the Mesopotamia corvée system, people designated as “workers” were summoned to perform physical labor for a monthlong period that was called their “turn.” During their turn, workers were compensated in amounts of grain, oil, clothing, and other consumable goods, which the lists call “rations.” These workers could also be hired to work at times other than their turn, in which case the compensation they received was designated not as “rations” but as “wages.” The distinction may reflect the underlying ideology of the state as a household; that is, people working for the state (household) during their turn were considered members of the household and provided for accordingly, whereas people working for the state outside their turn were viewed as hired hands and paid according to services rendered.

Specialized Requirements. The origin of work obligations in return for usufruct of institutionally held land, as seen in the Pre-Sargonic and Ur III periods, and of the state corvee system of the later periods, may have been a response to the specialized requirements of the Mesopota-mian agricultural regime. While many workers were needed only in certain times, such as during the harvest, the mouths of those workers needed to be filled year-round. The necessity of maintaining a pool of labor for the busy months may have motivated the development of state-run undertakings to make good use of that labor supply at other times. One large state-run operation, grain milling, drew workers from a variety of social backgrounds— including various professionals, dependents, squatters, and prisoners of war. Large-scale textile production, undertaken by temples in all periods and the palace (that is, the state) in some periods, demanded a permanent, year-round workforce of trained individuals.


Igor M. Diakonoff, “Slave-Labor vs. Non-Slave Labor: The Problem of Definition,” in Labor in the Ancient Near East, edited by Marvin A. Powell, American Oriental Series, volume 68 (New Haven, Conn.: American Oriental Society, 1987), pp. 1–3.

Kazuya Maekawa, “Collective Service in Girsu-Lagash: The Pre-Sargonic and Ur III Periods,” in Labor in the Ancient Near East, pp. 49–71.

Maekawa, “Female Weavers and their Children in Lagash: Pre-Sargonic and Ur III,” Acta Sumerologica, 2 (1982): 81–125.

J. N. Postgate, Early Mesopotamia: Society and Economy at the Dawn of History (London&New York: Routledge, 1992).

Piotr Steinkeller, “The Foresters of Umma: Toward a Definition of Ur Labor,” in Labor in the Ancient Near East, pp. 73–115.

Hartmut Waetzoldt, “Compensation of Craft Workers and Officials in the Ur III Periods,” in Labour in the Ancient Near East, pp. 117–141.

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The Workforce

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