Approximately 4,000 years ago, disgruntled customers didn’t hold back their grievances when dealing with Ea-Nāṣir, a dubious copper merchant operating in Mesopotamia. Fast forward to around 3,770 years ago, a dissatisfied trader named Nanni expressed his anguish regarding a botched transaction, accusing the alleged unscrupulous merchant, Ea-Nāṣir, of various wrongdoings. While these events unfolded in the ancient city of Ur, located in modern-day Iraq, the complaints about questionable financial dealings, subpar products, and severe customer service deficiencies resonate with modern consumers.
So much so that this correspondence stands as the world’s oldest complaint letter, holding a Guinness World Record, and Nanni’s millennia-old grievances continue to inspire countless comparisons on the internet. But who was Ea-Nāṣir, and why does Nanni’s complaint letter, written thousands of years ago, still intrigue us today?
The Discovery of Ea-Nāṣir’s Infamous Tablet
The tablet, dating back to around a century ago, was uncovered in Ur, thanks to a discovery expedition led by the renowned archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. It featured a series of business documents written in cuneiform on small clay tablets, some of which included Nanni’s complaint. The palm-sized tablet, dated to around 1750 BC, was inscribed in the Akkadian language spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. Today, it’s a part of the British Museum’s collections.
Nanni’s letter, commissioned by him, criticized Ea-Nāṣir for promising “high-quality copper ingots” and failing to fulfill the agreement. Instead, Nanni complained that the merchant sent him low-grade copper, treated him and his messenger disrespectfully, and seemingly collected money from Nanni claiming a one-mina silver debt (one mina being roughly one-fifth of an ounce).
When Nanni’s messenger attempted to discuss the quality of the copper with Ea-Nāṣir, Nanni claimed that he was dismissed. Ea-Nāṣir reportedly told him, “If you want to take them, take them. If you don’t, go away!”
Nanni’s fury was fueled by both the inferior copper and the merchant’s mistreatment of his messenger. In one translation, Nanni concluded in anger, “I will not accept any copper that is not of good quality from you. I will personally select the ingots one by one in my own yard, and I will exercise my right of rejection against you for the disrespectful way you treated me.”
In another translation, Nanni issues a warning, stating, “I will make you suffer for belittling me!”
The Early Era of Globalization
For archaeologists like Professor Lloyd Weeks from the University of New England in Australia, who study metal production and exchange in the ancient Near East, this letter reflects the realities of the ancient economy on a small scale. The copper Nanni complained about played a crucial role in everyday items like tools, containers, and utensils, making it a valuable commodity in the Bronze Age Mesopotamia.
During that era, Ur was a powerful Sumerian city-state situated on the shores of the Persian Gulf, serving as a central hub in an extensive trade network. However, due to Ur’s lack of metal resources, traders had to venture 965 kilometers away to an island known today as Bahrain, previously called Dilmun, to search for copper.
Individual traders pooled resources to finance overseas copper acquisitions, each contributing capital in the form of silver and commodities like sesame oil. These private ventures would later sell the copper, distribute profits among themselves, and pay taxes to the palace and, most likely, the temples. Nanni’s complaint mentions him paying 490 kilograms of copper to the palace, providing evidence of the decimal tax imposed by the Sumerian royalty.
Why should we care about the grievances of a wronged customer from nearly 4,000 years ago? The class ties, personal reputation, and mutual needs that held together this early global economy were remarkably complex, all thanks to merchants like Ea-Nāṣir and Nanni.
Weeks comments, “People often talk about globalization as a modern phenomenon. The Bronze Age is typically the period that archaeologists and economic historians feel they can start to look at the effects of globalization. It may not encompass the entire planet, but it covered extensive regions of Eurasia during that time.”
The Notorious Merchant
It appears Nanni wasn’t the only one filing complaints against the merchant. In fact, the British Museum holds more evidence of Ea-Nāṣir’s deceptive copper trade.
On another tablet, someone named Imgur-Sin advises Ea-Nāṣir, “Transfer good copper to Niga-Nanna… Give him fine copper so that I won’t be upset. Don’t you know I’m annoyed?”
The reputation of the copper baron for subpar products had evidently spread throughout Ur. In another letter to the copper baron, a trader named Nar-am makes a demand, stating, “[Igmil-Sin, Nar-am’s messenger] must give very good copper! I hope you haven’t run out of copper.”
Considering the consistency of complaints about Ea-Nāṣir’s customer service, it’s perhaps only fair to let him have the final word. The survival of a note from a targeted merchant in ancient Babylonia reaching our time is remarkable and unsurprisingly filled with copper-related dramas. In the letter, Ea-Nāṣir advises two men, one named Šumum-libši and a coppersmith, not to overreact when two individuals come to search for the lost metal.
“Don’t criticize,” Ea-Nāṣir advises. “Don’t be afraid!”
Ea-Nāṣir and Nanni, figures from an ancient era, have left a lasting legacy. Their correspondence provides a unique glimpse into the early global economy, demonstrating the intricacies of trade, commerce, and customer relations. Ea-Nāṣir, the notorious copper merchant, and Nanni, the unsatisfied customer, serve as historical reminders of the challenges and dynamics that shaped the world’s economy thousands of years ago.
In today’s context, their stories remind us of the enduring significance of commerce, trust, and customer service. As we navigate the complexities of modern global markets, it’s fascinating to draw parallels with these ancient merchants and their timeless disputes.