Ancient Mesopotamian Accounting, Money & Labor

In ancient times (starting approximately 5300 BC), Mesopotamia was an area that comprised of the modern regions of Iraq, south-east Turkey, north-east Syria, and the western end of Iran. It is where most Middle Eastern and West European cultures are believed to have emerged. This ancient civilization was quite advanced for their time. In particular, a noteworthy system that they developed was an early version of money. Believe it or not, we still use many of those concepts today with modern finances and economy! In this article, we'll examine how the concept of money was developed in Mesopotamia and how it changed over time.

Ancient Mesopotamian Money

The ancient Mesopotamians were quite obsessed with record-keeping. They kept meticulous notes about what was bought and sold, along with details of taxes, trade lists, rations, and more. All of these records helped to settle disputes and keep accounts in order. Records were usually engraved on clay tablets. Long before humans started using coins for money, the Mesopotamians used silver rings. They used it much like we use money today.

The Development of Early Forms of Money

Even before silver rings came into use, the Mesopotamians had other ways of assigning value to items. At first instead of using money, they would barter. This meant that they would exchange goods for other items of similar value. The Mesopotamians eventually started using clay tokens. At first they used a hollow clay ball, with a number of small token pieces inside that corresponded to the value of a good. Later they embedded or marked the number of token pieces on the outside of the clay ball, and this eventually changed to flatter tokens with dots or dents for markings. The very early Mesopotamains used five different types of clay tokens to represent the values of the three principal types of goods that were traded at the time. This comprised of livestock, grain, and workers. In the larger cities, they had sixteen types of tokens. These extra tokens represented values for additional goods like honey, clothing, milk, and even luxury goods like perfume!

How the Concept of Money was Formed

The bartering system became a bit complicated because it was quite subjective. For example, one could trade a loaf of bread for a bowl of dates, or perhaps a jug of milk. Depending on who the other trader was, the exchanged goods could vary quite a bit! The Mesopotamians needed a way to fix a value to goods to make sure that everyone got a fair deal in their exchanges. Between 3100 BC to around 2500 BC, silver and barley were the main items used to represent the value of other goods. One shekel was a unit of weight, so people could ask for 20 shekels of silver in exchange for some goods. Once this system was in place, kings started to set fines in shekels as a punishment for criminals.

A Look at Ring Money

When the shekel system had just been introduced, it was common for people to carry bags of metal pieces with them. When they had to pay, the metal pieces were placed on one end of a weighing scale. On the other end were weighing stones. From around 2800 BC to 2500 BC, silver pieces were produced in a standard form as coils or circular rings. When they were referred to on tablets, they were known as har. They were made in several sizes, from very small to large, heavy ones.

Issues with Mesopotamian Money

There were indeed a few problems with the Mesopotamian system of money. Although silver was used for most purchases, people also used less precious metals like copper or tin for regular daily payments. Sometimes they even used barley. The advantage was that since these items had a lower value, it was highly unlikely that the recipient would be cheated. By comparison, payments in silver could result in large losses if the silver was impure or if it was weighted incorrectly. In fact, this type of cheating did become so frequent that the locals laws forbade such tampering. Cheating and mismanagement of money also led to enormous amounts of debt. Many people who were so heavily in debt ended up as slaves. Finally, King Hammurabi issued a decree that people could only be held as slaves for their debts for a maximum of three years. In other areas, outstanding debts were suspended entirely.

Work, Trade, and Industry in Ancient Mesopotamia

In Ancient Mesopotamia, there was a large variety in the number of trades and jobs that people held. Farming and agriculture-related jobs were likely the most common. In the food sector, there were fishermen, butchers, bakers, and ale brewers. Trades people who provided household goods were tanners, potters, leatherworkers, weavers, spinners and sewers, stone masons, and jewelers. Finally, there were people who made tools and weapons to equip armies, as well as boat builders and woodworkers for houses and transport. There were limits for the minimum and maximum amounts of worker's wages, and they were usually paid in amounts of barley. Apart from these basic trades, there were higher paying jobs as well, notably in the courts. The kings usually had a large number of civil servants to run the kingdom.