The Near Eastern Merchant: Identity in Common Objects?

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 idea.
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 network.

Textual Evidence:
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 1950;14-29).
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 generally,
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 trading purposes.
(Leemans 1950;31)

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, etc.)
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.

Archaeological Evidence:
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 Bronze Age.
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 published.
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 1993:10).

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 Cherry 1994;136).
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 record.
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 society.

e.g. Leemans 1950; 1960, Veenhof 1972
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.
See, for example, Amarna letter EA39 (Moran 1992;112) where the king of Ala iya states that his messengers are his merchants.
See Veenhof 1972;54-68 for a discussion of weights in texts concerning the Old Assyrian merchant.
For instance, the Code of Hammurabi, section 94 states: "If the tamkarum tries to practise fraud with weights, he loses everything he has lent" (Leemans 1950;14).
Unfortunately, the concept of 'market' in the Near East is a nebulous one. For information, see Polanyi 1957, Yoffee 1981.
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.
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.
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.
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.

Arnaud, D.
1967 "Contribution a l'étude de la métrologie syrienne au
IIe millénaire", Revue d'Assyriologie 61:151-69

Arnaud, Daniel, Yves Calvet and Jean-Luis Huot
1979 Il u-Ibni u, orfevre de l'E.BABBAR de Larsa, Syria

Bass, George F.
1967 Cape Gelidonya: A Bronze Age Ship Wreck,

Bass, G.F., C. Pulak, D. Collon and J. Weinstein
1989 "The Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun: 1986 Campaign"
AJA 93:1-29

Beck, Pirhiya
1977 "Tombs near Akko: The Cylinder Seals" Atiqot

Bjorkman, Judith K.
1993 "The Larsa Goldsmith's Hoards - New Interpretations",
JNES 52:1-23

Courtois, J.-C.
1983 "Le Tresor de poids de Kalavassos-Ayios Dhimitrios
1982", RDAC 1983:117-30

Dayton, John
1974 "Money in the Near East before Coinage", Berytus

Eran, A. and G. Edelstein
1977 "Tombs near Akko: The Weights", Atiqot 12:52- 62

Knapp, A. Bernard and John F. Cherry
1994 Provenience Studies and Bronze Age Cyprus:
Production, Exchange and Politico-Economic Change,
Prehistory Press, Madison

Leemans, W.F.
1950 The Old-Babylonian Merchant; His Business and his
Social Position, Studia et Documenta ad Iura
Orientis Antiqui Pertinentia v.3, E.J. Brill, Leiden

1960 Foreign Trade in the Old Babylonian Period, as
Revealed by Texts from Southern Mesopotamia,
Studia et Documenta ad Iura Orientis Antiqui Pertinentia
v.6, E.J. Brill, Leiden

Michalowski, Piotr
1978 The Neo-Sumerian Silver Ring Texts, Undena, Malibu

Paley, S.M.
1986 "Inscribed Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian Seals",
in Insight through Images, M. Kelly-Buccellati (ed.),
pp. 209-220

Polanyi, Karl
1957 "Marketless Trading in Hammurabi's Time", in Trade
and Market in the Early Empires, K. Polanyi, C.M.
Arensberg and H.W. Pearson (eds.), pp. 12-26

Powell, Marvin A.
1978 "A Contribution to the History of Money in Mesopotamia
prior to the Invention of Coinage", in Festschrift
Lubor Matous, B. Hruska and G. Komoroczy (eds.),
pp. 211-243

Pulak, Cemal
1988 "The Bronze Age Shipwreck at Ulu Burun, Turkey: 1985
Campaign", AJA 92:1-37

1989 "Ulu Burun: 1989 Excavation Season", INA
Newsletter v. 16 nr. 4:4-11

South, Alison K.
1983 "Kalavasos-Ayios Dhimitrios 1982", RDAC 1983:91-116

Snell, Daniel C.
1982 Ledgers and Prices: Early Mesopotamian Merchant
Accounts, New Haven

Veenhof, V.R.
1972 Aspects of Old Assyrian Trade and its Terminology,
E.J. Brill, Leiden

Winter, Irene J.
1986 "The King and the Cup", in Insight through Images,
M. Kelly-Buccellati (ed.), pp. 253-268

1987 "Legitimation of Authority Through Image and Legend:
Seals Belonging to Officials in the Administrative
Bureaucracy of the Ur III State", in The Organization of
Power: Aspects of Bureaucracy in the Ancient Near East,
M. Gibson and R. Biggs(eds.), pp.69-106

Yoffee, Norman
1981 Explaining Trade in Ancient Western Asia, Malibu

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