Why do we post, and why do we read the posts of people we will never meet?
Sometimes, we’re writing solely out of some primal need for human connection—but mostly, it’s for more prosaic reasons. We post the food picture to display for others that we have the wealth to eat good food, or the skill to make it. We express our grievances with politics or local jerks in hope that something will change, sure, but also to vent frustration with like-minded individuals.
So it has been since time immemorial.
The first writing was an ancestor of the spreadsheet, invented by bureaucrats in Mesopotamia and Egypt to record the harvest and track shipments of goods. They make ten marks and then a little cow head to signify heads of cattle. The cow head becomes simpler in successive generations because it comes to mean more things than just cow head, and everyone draws a cow head differently. The Phoenicians turn the simplified cow head on its side. It becomes the letter A.
By the 19th Century BCE writing was used for most of the same uses as it is today—with the exception of longform written literature, which would mostly come later with the cheaper medium of papyrus. In the thriving world of the Late Bronze Age from 1500 to 1150 BCE, strong trade networks made possible by writing united city-states and empires along the entire eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
There is a great deal of material history from the era attesting to this widespread trade, including a great deal of delivered mail (DMs). The Uluburun shipwreck for instance, found off the coast of Turkey in 1984, was used to transport high-end luxury items and valuable raw materials. That shipwreck had both gold jewelry from Egypt and a pair of swords from as far away as Mycenae and Italy. We are left to speculate about the cool barbarian mercenaries from the edge of civilization hired on as part of the crew of this doomed vessel.
We will never know what the crew of that ship thought, and monuments record only what the powerful decide they will record. “1177 BC, The Year Civilization Collapsed” notes that at the end of the Late Bronze Age victory monuments built along the Nile River record Ramses III’s victories over the mysterious marauding Sea Peoples. But over the course of a century, these “glorious victories” occur further and further south, because they keep losing and don’t make a monuments to commemorate those occasions.
So for any real insight into the way that people thought at the time, you need personal messages. It is a tragedy of material choice and history that many books, scrolls, and papers from the wetter parts of the world have decayed or been destroyed. Special shout-out to Diego de Landa for burning all but four Mayan books, crippling historical knowledge of that society forever.
Clay tablets were more expensive and held less text than paper or papyrus, but their archival qualities are unmatched—in Mesopotamia, we have been lucky enough to find nearly hundreds of thousands of them. And more are found every year, buried high in desert trash heaps. These letters record everything from official kingly business, to trade, to details of the daily lives of the everyday people who wrote them.
For a certain value of everyday person, that is, since sending a messenger was pretty expensive—the level of literacy among the common people in Mesopotamia is also a debated topic.
The hundreds of thousands of letters we have are a treasure trove, too dense for any lay reader—most of them are published are in French or German academic journals. In a way, collections for the average reader like the book Letters from Mesopotamia and Letters from the Mari Archives are the ancient equivalent of Dril’s book, showing exemplary and representative pieces from a collection too large to readily take in.
So here are some letters which have direct counterparts to messages that anyone today might have sent. The content is the same, it’s just the form is a little different. I think the draw of these letters is the same voyeurism as listening to a conversation between passers-by, but at the remove of a hundred generations.
This is the oldest known business complaint—and it paints a picture that deserves a movie, featuring theft, travel of messengers through a warzone, and poor-quality goods. Nanni paid for a ton of copper from Ea-nasir and the copper was impure. He sent his messengers —who are the real heroes of this story—a number of times to get the good copper or at least get his money back. He deserves a refund, and I think we should all agree to boycott Ea-nasir’s copper business until his customer service improves.
Who can I speak to about this? I’m hearing that all parties involved have been dead for thousands of years?
This was a legitimate business transaction, with taxes and tithes paid in full to the palace. We know that that was not always the case. Smaller tablets that might have been tucked into a belt hint at smuggler’s routes, or “the narrow path” over mountains in certain polities that unscrupulous merchants used to avoid paying tariffs, at the risk of attack by bandits.
Important messages that needed to be trusted used a cylinder seal with a unique design to identify the sender. These were worn as jewelry, and to use them, the sender would roll it like a stamp in the wet clay. Like a verified checkmark on Twitter or an elaborate forum signature, it isn’t easily faked.
So do we use month/day/year or day/month/year here?
Many of these letters deal with the transactions of protocol and ritual. I understand Yasim-Surnū’s concern here—if you’ve ever worked in an office or government agency of any kind, this message should be familiar to you.
This is one of those questions where only two kinds of response are possible. Either he gets a letter back saying that either version of the date is correct and that he was foolish to bring the topic to king Zimri-Lim’s attention, r he gets a letter back with the correct version, informing that he should have known without asking and that he was foolish to bring the topic to king Zimri-Lim’s attention.
We actually know a great deal about Zimri-Lim. From a collection of 16,000 letters recovered from the Mari archives we can get a pretty good picture of the guy—he clawed his way to the throne through a succession crisis, had a good sense of humor, and respected women, especially his eight daughters. He would later be killed by Hammurabi.
Letters from this time that are addressed to superiors feature standardized submissive opening templates: “Seven times and again seven times I prostrate myself before the feet of Your Majesty” or “I am ready to die for my lord” are common ones, and the length of the template tends to grow longer as the era passes. Each additional word and phrase must be carved into the clay. An extra paragraph at the beginning of each message must have been a pain in the recently-domesticated ass.
Often there’s a prayer for the health of the receiver. One letter repeated the health prayer twice in the opening and added an extra “Stay well!” after the second one. Maybe the sender was extra worried about his boss’s health in that case, or they were close friends.
Mom, my phone is old and bad. I need the new one.
Marduk-damn new generation, no respect for their elders. The oldest known joke dates from this era: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” Well, this is a letter from a young man asking his mother for better clothes.
When I first read this, I assumed that this letter was asking for money for new clothes, but that’s a modern projection—commercial sale of clothing at scale is an industrial invention. This guy is asking his mom to make the clothes for him, or get someone else to make them.
Look at that prayer for health in the second paragraph. Iddin-Sin added “for my sake” at the end. Stay healthy—not for your own health, but for mine. What a dipshit! What a trash son! He even pulls the “you don’t love me” card.
This final one isn’t even remotely Sumerian, but I feel it’s relevant.
A recent drought in Central Europe revealed a medieval “hunger stone” buried on the shore of the Elbe River. On it is carved the phrase “If you see me, weep,” the initials of unknown authors, and the years of historic low water levels.
Why was the drought stone left here? To warn that shit’s tough this year, for sure. But if the river is low enough to reveal the stone, then you already know you’re in a drought. Maybe it’s to commiserate with the other sufferers before and the ones yet to come.
Connections Across Time and Space
The multiplayer in Dark Souls—where ghosts from another time appear as silent ghosts to assist a burdened traveller, and leave anonymous messages on the ground—was inspired by a time when the game’s director got his car stuck in the snow and was rescued by people in the cars behind him pushing him forward. He couldn’t stop to respond because his car would get stuck in the snow again. The last guy.
The modern Twitter user might be as psychically remote from the people of Mesopotamia as they are from the people they interact with online. I’ll never meet most of the people I follow. Almost always, I’ll start following someone for some new piece of information that I’m interested in. Then, I discover that they’re a unique human being, with taste in food, political opinions, and bad selfies.
Similarly, none of us can meet the writers of these ancient tablets. But we know through reading them that the writers were as human as we are, that outside of a short message preserved on clay they, too, had lives. The tablets are very small window into those lives. They had small secret conversations, kept dogs as pets, argued in bad faith, and sacrificed birds to Marduk to ensure a good harvest—and people today do three out of those four things too.
Knowing that our predecessors shared these concerns makes them more real, less mysterious and exotic. If even a Sumerian merchant four thousand years ago was a person, then we’re all people, trapped in this world together and trying to make the best of it.