The British Museum is full of all sorts of things that shouldn’t be there. One less well-known example, beyond the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, is an initially inconspious clay tablet, traditionally referred to as ‘The Complaint Tablet of Ea-nasir’.
The tablet itself is made of clay, c.12cm by 5cm, and covered in cuneiform text. Dated to 1750BC, the tablet recounts what is generally accepted to be the first known example of a complaint, and recounts a trade dispute. Now, I don’t claim to be in anyway knowledgeable about this period, or indeed this area of the world, but that’s partially why this artefact attracts me – a remarkably human expression of language and emotion, from a context I know nothing about.
The text reads as follows (and here I’m quoting from Oppenheim 1976, which seems from a brief look to be the definitive translation):
“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 is a remarkable reminder of the human within history. It’s often easy to see past historical actors as either statistics or emotionless rational individuals. Yet here, almost 4,000 years ago, is a complaint as real as today – change the names and commodities around and it might as easily be a medieval text.
As a side note, there’s a wonderful Facebook meme page called Complaint Tablet to Ea-Nasir Memes for Teens Who Are Not of Good Quality for anyone who wants some incredibly niche historical laughs – I would highly recommend it.
Bibliography and Further Reading
Oppenheim, A. Leo (1967). Letters From Mesopotamia: Official, Business, and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millennia. The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.