Customer Service – It even sucked in 1750 BC

I saw this image pop up on reddit somewhere, and thought it was amusing in light of today’s challenges with companies like Comcast:


Well, of course I shared it round, and then people started asking me about the provenance. Stuff like this tends to go wild on places like Pinterest and Flickr, generally without attribution, so it took me a while to track down some relevant information about the piece.

According to the British Museum, this tablet is currently part of their collection; the description reads:

Clay tablet; letter from Nanni to Ea-nasir complaining that the wrong grade of copper ore has been delivered after a gulf voyage and about misdirection and delay of a further delivery; slightly damaged; 23 + 25 + 3 + 2 ll. Dated 1750 BC, Excavated/Findspot: Ur (Asia,Iraq,South Iraq,Ur (city – archaic))

A little more digging provided me with some intriguing information about the tablet itself, provided by redditor /u/labarna, who claims a PhD in Babylonian astronomy:

If you’re curious here’s the translation of the letter (emphasis mine). This is taken from Leo Oppenheim’s book “Letters from Mesopotamia“:

Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

This letter is quite interesting because it was actually excavated from Ur, so we have an approximate find spot, which is unfortunately somewhat rare for most cuneiform tablets.

It’s also interesting because of the mention of merchants who trade with Telmun. As far as we know Telmun (or Dilmun) was a polity in the Persian Gulf, probably near to if not located on the island of Bahrain. There was a certain type of merchant alik Tilmun (literally “one who goes to Dilmun”) who was associated with trade in the Persian Gulf. And not surprisingly (if you read the letter) copper was a major part of this trade network. Now it should also be said that there were many trade networks flowing into and out of Mesopotamia at this point and the trade through the Persian Gulf was just one facet of a larger network.

/u/labarna then also links to a pencil sketch of the tablet in question:


We are challenged to compare said sketch to the image of the tablet, and told that this passes for fun among those who study cuneiform. Intriguing indeed, doing such a comparison would give me a headache, and I have nothing but huge respect for those who can decipher such things.

It would be interesting to know the outcome of this particular trade dispute. if Ea-nasir was anything like Comcast, he would have sent back a clay tablet with the Bablylonian equivalent of “It sucks to be you.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.


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