The Archives of Old Assyrian Traders: their Nature, Functions and Use
Veenhof, Klaas R.
This contribution deals with the archives of Old Assyrian traders (originating from the city-state of Assur on the Tigris) from the first centuries of the second millennium BC, found in their houses in the lower town of the ancient Anatolian city of Kanesh, which is excavated since 1948 by Turkish archaeologists. The now more than 23.000 cuneiform tablets discovered there, belonging to at least 60 different merchants’ archives, constitute the most detailed and extensive written evidence on overland trade before the early Middle Ages. After providing general information on the traders, their business and their archives (kept in sealed “strong-rooms”), a more detailed analysis is preceded (§ 2) by distinguishing the various situations in which traders lived and worked in Kanesh – seniors or young men, with or without their family, some also with a house in another trading town in Anatolia - and the impact this had on their relations with their mother-city and on the nature and number of written records in their archives. In § 3 a brief sketch is given of the self-governing, corporate Assyrian merchant community, called “kārum Kanesh” (its location and archives have not yet been discovered), run by its main members. As an extension of the government of the city of Assur and head of the colonial network in Anatolia it played a vital role in performing administrative (it kept accounts, organized general accounting sessions and could impose rules), commercial (organizing collective operations and dealing with the local palace and ruler) and judicial tasks (as court of law), whose impact on the activities of the traders is reflected by their archives. In § 4 the three main categories into which the records may be distinguished are described: a large variety of letters, legal documents (contracts and judicial records) and memorandums, lists and short notes, whose functions the long § 5 analyzes. Three functions, which may overlap, are distinguished. Firstly (§ 5.1) as means of communication, mainly by letters, essential for the success of the caravan system and the contacts between people - relatives, business partners, authorities - in Assur and the colonies, notably with personnel and relatives traveling or temporarily settled elsewhere in Anatolia. Secondly (§ 5.2) as aid to memory, letters, testimonies, memorandums and lists, to keep track of the many, often complex and valuable transactions, especially investments and credit operations, to monitor due dates and dun defaulting debtors. And thirdly (§ 5.3) as evidence, especially “valid” records, that is those in sealed envelopes, both contracts and agreements and a variety of usually sworn depositions and testimonies, which resulted from and were used in private summonses, mediation, arbitration or formal lawsuits. The latter could take place in kārum Kanesh and in Assur, before the City Assembly, headed by the ruler of Assur, which resulted in verdicts and official letters. Credit operations in particular generated many evidentiary records, most of them in order to provide creditors with various securities and specific facilities, such as a “payment contract” (with a defaulting debtor) and a kind of “bearer’s cheques”. Paragraph 6 investigates the role of “copies” and “duplicates”, both of letters and “valid records”, made to serve multiple addressees of letters, to provide business partners and co-witnesses with essential data (e.g. to dun defaulting debtors and to prepare for lawsuits), and to keep evidence available when originals were sent overland. The final § 7 analyzes the various ways in which records were classified, by subject matter, persons involved, the nature of the texts (e.g. letters, debt-notes, and sealed or unsealed records), and stored in the archives. This was usually on shelves along the walls or in various types of frequently sealed containers (wooden boxes, baskets, leather bags and jars) or as sealed packets, whose contents could be identified by inscribed bullae that served as labels. Letters of absent traders who ask wives or friends to retrieve records from their archives and write about the transport of groups of tablets provide interesting information. Unfortunately the archaeological record about the discovery of the tablets usually is too general, because their exact find-spots and numbers are rarely mentioned, which makes it impossible to distinguish valid, current records, from old files, no longer in use and possibly stored in jars. The informative value of the bullae, often separated from the tablets to which they belonged and published separately, is also not exploited. The resulting picture, mainly based on the textual information, shows a rather practical way of classification in various types of easily distinguishable groups and files in different “containers”, but many details remain unclear.
EUT Edizioni Università di Trieste
Klaas R. Veenhof, "The Archives of Old Assyrian Traders: their Nature, Functions and Use", in: Michele Faraguna (edited by), "Archives and archival documents in ancient societies: Legal documents in ancient societies IV, Trieste 30 September - 1 October 2011", Trieste, EUT Edizioni Università di Trieste, 2013, pp. 27-71.