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Slavery in the Ancient Near East: Weaving Factories

Tablets from Tell Ahmar tell us that workers were bought by Hanni to presumably to labour in his Workshop and likely in his private quarters as well. We don’t know the ethnicity of these workers, unfortunately, though it is my belief that because the objects they used were found amongst the figurines (which are of a local manufacture and style), that it is at least possible that the workers were also local.

In her study of the textile industry of the Ur III period (3rd millennium BCE), Dr Rita Wright concludes that the status of the female weavers employed by temple and state workshops was that of chattel slaves or semi-free workers without land.

sale of a male slave and a building in Shuruppak, Sumerian tablet, circa 2600 BCE

Sale of a male slave and a building in Shuruppak, Sumerian tablet, circa 2600 BCE

These workers are referred to as either geme, who were legally dependent persons forced to work as weavers or millers or sag, which denotes a person who is a slave. Geme are wholly state property and slaves who work in temple or palace workshops should be referred to as ‘dependent workers’, while those in private ownership have the status of ‘chattel slave’. A distinction was made between geme who were employed in agricultural tasks and those involved in domestic chores, including weaving.

As semi-free or enslaved workers, it is very unlikely that they owned any land. Instead they were most likely paid in food rations, which for female workers was among the lowest distributed. Wright also suggests that these women had little family life; they are listed by name only, rather than being described as ‘wife of…’, and their children are termed orphans at their death, further implying that the women were not married.

Recruitment of workers came from two sources: families in poverty who paid their debts by selling kin into slavery; and populations of regions captured in war. Several texts from Mari mention women who are recorded as female prisoners of war taken from a place named Kulmish, captured by Zimri Lim. Among the prisoners were groups of priestesses known as ugbabatum, who were spared the indignity of the textile factory to which most of the women were sent. It is likely that the temple and palace workers were the most marginalised group within Mesopotamian society. Either disenfranchised by their family or alienated from society as deported foreigners, these women had few rights or opportunities.

Assyrian captives, relief sculptures from palace at Nineveh, 668–627 B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Assyrian captives, relief sculptures from palace at Nineveh, 668–627 B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The rise of the temple and palace-based factories in the 3rd millennium in Mesopotamia, effected increasing power of these institutions over the former kin-based industry. The large scale factories were to become the model for 2nd millennium enterprises throughout Greater Mesopotamia. Vast numbers of people, both free officials and semi- or wholly-dependent workers, spent their lives producing the textiles for the internal consumption of these immense households and for the external trade upon which the economy was based.

The factory at Guabba is estimated to have had over six thousand workers, while that of Ur had approximately nine thousand, and that the industrial workshops of the 2nd millennium, such as Assur, Mari and Alalakh continued to employ large workforces. Numbers of workers, if not explicitly stated in the records, may be calculated through examination of ration lists. Workers, often slaves, were given quantities of food such as barley and oil, as well as cloth with which to make their own garments, and were apparently housed within the factory complex. According to documents from Mari, an official named Mukannisum, presiding over gangs of textile workers, was responsible for producing the textiles to clothe one hundred to three hundred palace workers.

The bodies of female slaves were available sexually to their owner; if a man other than her owner has intercourse with a slave, that man was perceived to have committed a crime against the owner rather than against the slave herself. The concept of ‘rape’ was unknown because slaves were not considered legal persons. Children born to slaves were also considered the property of the slave owner.

In the city of Lagash during the Ur III period the number of male children in the workshops was always less than female children, suggesting that boys were purposely excluded from the weaving workshops. Men also did not seem to take part in the actual activities of textile manufacture, though they may have had a dominant, supervisory role. The administration of wool production at temple workshops of the Ur III period involved the employment of male overseers who were provided with the raw materials for processing and were accountable for these and the output of the slave-girls in their teams. The supervisors of gangs of female weavers are sometimes recorded under a term gala which may be used in references to men who were feminine in some way.

References:

Diakonoff, IM. 1976.”Slaves, helots an serfs in early antiquity”, in J. Harmatta and G. Komoroczy (eds) Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft im Alten Vorderasian, Budapest: Academiai Kidao, pp.46-78.

Englund, RK. 1991. “Hard work: where will it get you? Labor Management in Ur III Mesopotamia”, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Vol. 50, pp.255-280.

Jacobsen, T. 1970. “On the textile industry at Ur under Ibbi-Sin”, in WL Moran (ed), Toward the Image of Tammuz and other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Maekawa, K. 1980. “Female weavers and their children in Lagash – pre-Sargonic and Ur III”, in Acta Sumerologica, No.2.

Postgate, N. 1987. “Employer, employee and employment in the Neo-Assyrian Empire”, in MA Powell (ed) Labor in the Ancient Near East, New Haven: American Oriental Society Series 68.

Wright, RP. 1996. “Technology, gender and class; worlds of difference in Ur III Mesopotamia” in RP Wright (ed), Gender and Archaeology, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, pp.79-110.