The Near Eastern Merchant: Identity in
William B. Hafford
University of Pennsylvania
Archaeologically, the identity of a group may be difficult
to find, and that of an individual almost impossible.
Nevertheless, the topic has received a good deal of interest of
late, and indeed, this paper is concerned with that very
The group being sought here is that of the merchant in the
Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean. Though some work has
been done toward identifying this group, it has primarily been
done through a study of ancient texts. 1
Despite the fact that texts specifically dealing with merchant
affairs are somewhat sparse and, in some cases, virtually non-
existent, information gained from them is extremely valuable.
Unfortunately, such information has rarely been correlated with
archaeological evidence for a broader understanding of the
merchant as an entity. In fact, archaeological studies of
mercantilism are even more lacking, being largely limited to a
listing of non-local items with the suggestion that these items
were traded in. The archaeologist then, normally looks at
commodities rather than the tools of trade while linguists
examine information about conduct (laws, taxes, rates of
exchange) and pay little attention to the physical remains.
Thus, we take here the approach of briefly reviewing the
merchant in ancient Near Eastern texts to determine the items
which may have been used in the conduct of their every day
business, then search for this 'assemblage' in archaeological
reports. The physical assemblages found are then discussed with
special focus on a few items believed to be most helpful in
gaining a more complete understanding of who the merchant was:
their social and political standing, their allegience (i.e.
state, temple, private) and the extent of their operational
The texts fall into several categories and are not
available through all periods in all places. The broadest
division breaks them into public and private documents of which
some are more common than others depending on many factors such
as literacy rates and degree of governmental control.
Unfortunately, in virtually all of these documents direct
information on the conduct of merchant affairs and more
specifically, the items utilized by these people, is rare.
What we do see, however, is the complexity of operations in
which merchants, known as tamkaru in Akkadian, were
involved. By the Old Babylonian period, 2
as indicated by economic texts and even the famous Law Code of
Hammurabi, the tamkarum had taken on a large number of
positions: a travelling merchant, a broker whose goods were sold
by agents, a financier for trade enterprises and/or a money
lender. (Leemans 1950;125). In the Amarna Period, it is also
clear that the traveling merchant acted as a messenger and even
perhaps a diplomat. 3
It may seem odd to think of 'money lenders' in a time
before coinage yet this was indeed, the case. Evidence strongly
points to the use of silver as a form of money in the ancient
Near East and it was used in a variety of transactions. Even
when the metal itself was not directly involved in trade, the
items being exchanged were often evaluated in terms of it (e.g.
cloth expressed as a value in silver by weight). We even find
the concepts of interest and profit in the Bronze Age economy
with silver being loaned out at a standard rate of 20% and some
being re-invested in mercantile ventures for gain (Leemans
Silver then, and to a lesser extent other valuable metals,
was of great importance to a merchant and it might be expected
that such metals would be found amongst their material remains.
As Leemans (1950;4) has stated: "Silver, therefore, may denote
money... it was used in bars or lumps. Consequently the balance
(weighing stones) had to be present at every sale..."
Some texts indicate that the form of silver used as
currency may not have been solely 'bars or lumps' but also
'rings' (Akkadian ewirum) from which small amounts could
be cut and weighed (Michalowski 1978, Powell 1978). Regardless
of the form, it is clear that assessing its value was of
paramount importance. This would require, as Leemans notes in
the quote above, weights.
In fact, weights are the objects most clearly linked to
merchants in the textual record. 4 There
are many references to weighing in the act of trade as well as
legal sanctions against the merchant that uses 'false
weights.' 5 Furthermore, the Akkadian
verbs which come to mean 'to pay' ( aqalu, madadu) are
the same verbs meaning 'to weigh out' or 'to measure'. Even in
our own day and age, many monetary units bear the names of units
of weight, such as the pound and the shekel.
Further textual evidence indicates the merchant may have
had a carrying case, as it were, for weights and perhaps other
items such as money; in short, the very assemblage we are
seeking. This case, or bag, known as a kisum, is
described as follows:
The kisum was originally the bag of the merchant,
in which he carried his weighing stones. More
it became the trader's bag or pouch with
money, which was
bound up in his garment...Finally
kisum assumed the
meaning of capital, money for
This is not to say that weights and silver or other scrap
metal were the only things merchants used. Other objects are
clearly indicated including the obvious economic texts
themselves. The majority of these texts are simple receipts of
sale, trade, or loan. Such record keeping would be of extreme
importance to any business person. It appears, however, that
when the transaction was complete (such as a loan being paid
off) the tablet was intentionally broken to reflect this fact.
It also appears that most receipts are found in archives, even
sometimes along with balanced accounts, and thus may not have
been carried around with a basic 'toolkit'. Still, there would
be a need to write receipts and thus the possibility of finding
such should not be wholly discounted.
Even more likely would be the presence of bullae, small
pieces of clay which were originally wrapped about the strings
of a bag or the stopper of a jar, etc. and stamped with an
identifying mark; perhaps that of the merchant or perhaps
indicating the contents of the vessel. These can vary greatly
in form and marking but would help to organize and identify
materials for trade, especially small valuables which must be
gathered together in containers (such as spices, perfume, beads,
Of course, there are still more items which might be
expected to be in the possession of a merchant such as the
objects destined for trade themselves and the scales necessary
for utilizing the weights. The most important thing, however,
is that several of the items discussed in this section be found
together, perhaps in an area which had some commercial
association, 6 making their identification
as merchant's tools more likely.
The assemblage described above is, in fact, found in
various incarnations throughout the Near East. Weights, again,
appear to be the primary link, being quite commonly discovered
in excavations and often found in groups. Unfortunately, they
are normally not analyzed with respect to their context, that
is, the circumstances in which they were found including the
type of building (temple, tomb, etc.) and the items found
alongside them. Of those which have been reported with context
in mind, it is very interesting to note that with almost every
substantial find of weights is also found at least one cylinder
seal. Such an item might indeed be expected to be carried by a
merchant for the marking of receipts and/or bullae. These items
can also carry a tremendous amount of data about the individual:
their family, religious, and professional ties. Thus, in the
following brief review of possible merchant assemblages, it is
the seals which will occupy the focus of our attention.
The most complete assemblage might be expected at sea where
the merchant's misfortunate shipwreck becomes the
archaeologist's boon. Two Late Bronze Age shipwrecks are well
known and both of these have been suggested as possibly carrying
merchants and their goods. 7 Both were
found off the southern coast of Turkey, near Gelidonya and Ulu
Burun respectively, and both sank toward the end of the Late
The weights on board the Gelidonya wreck have been analyzed
by the excavator (Bass 1967) and the only seal found there has
been analyzed by H-G. Buchholz (same volume). Both the seal and
the weights, mostly stone, are believed to have come from the
area of the captain's cabin and were thus likely stored (and
used?) together. The scene on the seal, a hematite cylinder
said to be of Frankfort's first or second Syrian Groups, is that
of two individuals facing a third over a field of animals. The
figures on either side of this field carry staves, making this
animal field something of a vertical register (fig. 1).
The Ulu Burun wreck has been more recently excavated and is
not yet fully published. There are over 200 weights here as
well as seven cylinder seals. In 1985 alone, twenty-two weights
were uncovered (Pulak 1988) and in the following year, two
cylinder seals. One seal is made of rock crystal and shows
three figures approaching a fourth from the left. In the space
between each of the figures are various symbols including a
cross and what appears to be a bird (fig. 2). The other is made
of hematite and originally showed only two figures facing each
other and carried an inscription (fig. 3 and c.f. fig. 9). It
was later re-cut to add several figures including a large
griffin where the inscription had once been. These two seals
come from area M11, where many of the weights were also found.
A third was uncovered in 1989 nearby but the rest are not yet
At Kalavassos-Ayios Dhimitrios on Cyprus, a group of 14
weights and a single cylinder seal were found tightly packed in
a small hole dug through the floor and into bedrock (South,
1983:103). Most of the weights are of bronze and in the form of
animals. The seal is of hematite, probably Cypriot manufacture
(Courtois 1983:129), showing three figures, two facing left, one
facing right and each holding a quadruped aloft by the horns.
The two left-facing figures seem to approach the right-facing
one who is winged (fig. 4). Also found in this room were two
bronze fragments and a Mycenaean IIIB jar (note however that the
entire room could not be excavated).
Next, in the Levant, not far from Akko, five tombs were
excavated, three of which contained a total of 58 weights (Eran
and Edelstein 1977). In addition, two of the tombs produced
four cylinder seals. These same tombs contained Mycenaean
(IIIA) and Cypriot pottery lending credence to the possibility
that the graves were those of merchants.
The seals (even those from the same tomb) are widely
different in style and, if used by the same person, raise some
interesting questions. The Cypriot seal from tomb B3 (which is
described as having some Levantine aspects, see Beck 1977) has
the most familiar representation when compared with the other
seals discussed above (fig. 5). Three figures are shown, one of
which (who is seen in a striding stance) holds a quadruped
suspended by one hind leg. The seal noted as possibly Egyptian
also has a figure holding a quadruped by a hind leg (fig. 6).
The Mitannian seal from this tomb is quite different, having
noticeably finer carving and two registers (fig. 7). The single
seal from tomb A2, badly damaged, has a primary scene of two
facing figures with a bird associated with the figure on the
right (fig. 8).
Moving farther inland, a large hoard of weights has been
found at Larsa (Arnaud et al. 1979). Here, in the temple
E.BABBAR, 66 weights were discovered in a jar along with scraps
of precious metal, jewelry, beads, as well as a cylinder seal
and 18 bullae. The seal is rather different in that it
preserves an inscription, reading: Il u-Ibni u, son of Atanah-
Ili, servant of Nergal (fig.9). The scene is very sparse,
showing only two figures, yet, this is a well-known Old
Babylonian type, a version of which is seen in the original
carving of one of the Ulu Burun seals (fig. 3).
There were two other hoards in this room of the temple, one
containing: 5 bullae, 5 cuneiform tablets, and many beads; and
the other: two cuneiform tablets and a second cylinder seal.
Both of these hoards were found in pits in the floor and, though
they did not contain weights, they may be related to the jar
hoard as they do contain some of the same materials. The bullae
found in the jar and one of the pit hoards seem to have sealed
small bags 8 and possess sealings very
similar to the scene on the two seals found here. One sealing
on several of the bullae bears the name Sin-Uselli and mentions
his profession as "one who pays/weighs out silver" (Bjorkman
In many periods, sealings identified people just as modern
signatures do today; they were used to acknowledge receipt of a
loan, witness of a legal proceeding, etc. Thus, the images on
the seal must have had some meaning to the owner and must have
been recognizable to others. Some possible characteristics
which might be represented on a seal are: family, religion,
citizenship, or profession. Those seals which have inscriptions
tend to confirm this as they generally identify the person not
only by name but also by father's name and patron deity,
sometimes even listing titles such as profession. Continuing in
this line of thought, similar groups of people might have
similar sealing iconography and deciphering this imagery might
lead to a better understanding of who they were.
With this in mind, we compare the seals found with what
appears to be the 'merchant assemblage' for any significant
similarities. On the macro level, many show a 'presentation
scene', (figures 1-6 all show the requisite bases for this
scene: one or more persons bearing gifts approaching another,
usually lone, individual) and a similar theme, a single person
confronting a deity with no visible offerings, applies to figs.
8 and 9.
On the micro level, certain elements repeat in the
depictions. Chief among these is the use of animals in all of
the seals shown. The type of animal varies though quite common
is a quadruped often held aloft (figs 1, 4-6, 7). Birds are
shown in figs. 1, 2?, 8 and more exotic creatures (sphinx,
griffin, lion) are shown in figs. 1, 3, 7, and 8. What are
likely weapons are shown (figs. 2, 5, 9) but also is a staff of
sorts (figs. 1, 6,) which may or may not be a weapon (could it
be a symbol of office?). Finally, the star or rosette is also
quite common (figs 1-5).
That animals are common is not surprising. They are
frequent on many seals found throughout the Near East but there
may be more to it than simply that. Early merchants may have
beein primarily purveyors of livestock and this may have lead to
a perceptual link between them. Further evidence might be found
in the fact that many Near Eastern weights (generally associated
with merchants) are fashioned in the form of animals. Bovids,
caprids, ducks, lions, even sphinxes are represented in the
bronze and stone weights. Perhaps there is a link between
animals, weights and merchandise (and thus merchants) which then
finds its way into representational art.
It has been suggested, for the neo-Assyrian and neo-
Babylonian time periods, that a scene much like the
'presentation scene' described as common in the seals of this
paper is something of an "official" seal type. Analyzing
inscribed seals of this period (admittedly later than the period
under investigation here), Paley (1986:218) has found that this
scene was "popular among the highly placed officials of the
army, priesthood, and royal chancellory". This group was also
popular amongst scribes.
Winter (1986, 1987) has made a similar analysis of this
type of scene for the Ur III period (earlier than the period of
this paper). The scene she discusses is a presentation before
the king, perhaps representing the bestowing of authority upon
the person in the seal, which she believes represents the seal
owner. She states that the people bearing these seals occupy
"the very highest levels of administrative positions within the
Ur III bureaucracy." (Winter 1986:264)
Could it be that the theme of the seals shown here is one
of legitimation and that merchants are bestowed with their
position by a king or god? Though this may be a leaping
generalization, merchants, at least inter-regional ones, may
have been largely acting on behalf of the king or the
temple. 9 Those merchants most visible in
the archaeological record would be those who did the largest
business, thus requiring more weights and amassing more foreign
items. These same merchants would likely be the most wealthy
and/or best connected in order to support their ventures. Even
if they were not directly working for the state, they would
certainly desire its support; diplomatic ties between states
help commerce, tax breaks can also help and both of these are
clearly indicated in texts, especially from Ugarit (Knapp and
In sum, the seals examined here (albeit a small sample) are
found in similar groupings and display commonalities perhaps
indicating connections (physical or ideological) amongst the
people who used them. It is possible that they not only
represent a merchant class but an even more specific type of
merchant who was well placed in society. There were certainly
other types of merchants who did business on a smaller scale, so
to speak, but these are less easily detected in the physical
Of course, there is also variation in the iconography of
the seals and the intervening factor of time in the samples may
be responsible but, it is more likely that it was the individual
merchant's personal preference which causes this. 10
If a seal identifies a person, representation would surely
be a personal choice. Guided as it may be by religious, family
or professional tradition, there must be variation to
distinguish individuals. Thus, seals would ultimately be as
unique as our own signatures today, many of which are illegible
but still identifiable to someone who knows the person. Though
this may mean that specific seal iconography is almost
indecipherable, general patterns may certainly emerge and there
remains hope for an even deeper understanding of the merchant as
an individual and as a member of an important segment of
(1) e.g. Leemans 1950; 1960, Veenhof 1972
(2) Roughly the 18th-16th centuries B.C.E., with the most well known king being
Hammurabi who ruled from 1792 B.C.E. by the most broadly accepted chronology.
(3) See, for example, Amarna letter EA39 (Moran 1992;112) where the king of Ala
iya states that his messengers are his merchants.
(4) See Veenhof 1972;54-68 for a discussion of weights in texts concerning the
Old Assyrian merchant.
(5) For instance, the Code of Hammurabi, section 94 states: "If the tamkarum
tries to practise fraud with weights, he loses everything he has lent"
(6) Unfortunately, the concept of 'market' in the Near East is a nebulous one.
For information, see Polanyi 1957, Yoffee 1981.
(7) In fact, both of these ships were carrying pottery and other items from
various countries as well as large amounts of metal. The Ulu Burun wreck had,
by far, the larger cargo with enough copper and tin to make 10 tons of bronze.
(8) It seems likely that the bags contained various types of scrap, having been
weighed out and placed inside with a sealing to confirm their content. After
the bags deteriorated, the scrap metals and beads mixed through the hoard.
Three thousand beads were found in the jar and 4500 in the pit with bullae.
(9) And this is certainly true in some places and times as indicated by textual
evidence. Knapp and Cherry (1994;136) discusses state-supported merchants at
Ugarit, and Leemans (1950;122) shows, that tamkaru of Kassite Babylonia are on
lists of salary payments from the government.
(10) Though the seals displayed here range from the 18th to the 13th centuries
B.C.E, only one of them was used exclusively in the earliest portion of this
period (fig. 9). The rest, though some were manufactured earlier, were still
in use in the 14th or 13th centuries B.C.E.
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