Ea-Nasir - if you know of him you have most likely heard of him in context of having received the world's oldest complaint letter regarding poor quality copper. And that's about as far as people's knowledge of him usually goes. But considering he lived 3,800 years ago we actually know quite a lot about him besides what we glean from this letter. One source of information is all the other complaint letters that were also found in his house!

I think Ea-Nasir is a fascinating character, which is why I wanted to make a shrine to him. I find him interesting because he feeds into what interests me about anthropology in general - people have always been, well, being people! We've always had the same motivations, fears, desires. Ancient cultures often seem so remote, mysterious and inexplicable. I don't think people ascribe "common" motives to the ancients. But there were shifty sellers and exasperated customers almost 4 millenia ago, just like you'd find on review sites today. So let's learn a little more about Ea-Nasir.

Let me set up for you the times he lived in. He lived during the reign of Rim-Sin which was from 1822-1763 BCE acccording to Middle Chronology. You will find different dates for the same events in ancient Near East histories because there are several different ways to figure the years, referred to as chronologies. I'm here for Ea-Nasir's shiftiness not archaeological chronology but if this tweaks your interest then go check out what the Met Museum has to say about chronologies. Back to our story -

Rim-Sin was the last king of Larsa, a Sumerian city-state in Southern Mesopotamia. He had the longest recorded reign in ancient Mesopotamia (Van de Mieroop). We can get a feeling for how Rim-Sin's rule went by looking at the year-names during his reign. What are year names? Well, ancient Mesopotamians kept their options open as far as how to refer to the years. Sometimes they used a number (5th year of the reign of So-and-So), sometimes they used an eponym, which is a name or noun formed after a person (in this case it was usually the names of high officials) or they could refer to the year by describing an event (Horsnell). Year 24 of Rim-Sin's reign was:

Year in which the righteous shepherd Rim-Sin, the wise whose youth is exuberant, dug under the order of An, Enlil, and Enki a double canal towards the shore of the sea, providing a large population with drinking water, producing a superabundance of harvest on its banks, and (he) changed (its banks) into many fields and arable lands (Sigrist and Damerow)

Pretty impressive, right? The first 30 years of Rim-Sin's reign are filled with activity. Year 30 is

Year Rim-Sin the true shepherd with the strong weapon of An, Enlil, and Enki seized Isin, the royal capital and the various villages, but spared the life of its inhabitants, and made great for ever the fame of his kingship (Sigrist and Damerow)

But years 31-60? Are all just named "the (blank) year after he seized Isin." What happened? One interpretation of events could be that Rim-Sin decided to rest on his laurels after conquering Isin and didn't feel the need to accomplish anything else. But another interpretation is that after so many years of fighting and acquiring territory, he may have been in a position where he was having trouble maintaining control of his domain and instead of being able to achieve further victories, his time was spent just hanging on to what he had (Van de Mieroop).

Where does Ea-Nasir fit into this? He was active during years 10-19 which were years of growth. And, I think this explains what he was doing in the copper ingot business. He seems to have been attached to the temple/palace at Ur during his heyday. His job involved importing copper ingots. Copper is used to make bronze which in turn is used to make weapons. Perhaps his business was to keep the king's armory supplied in order to facilitate all the conquest and expansion of territory that was going on during his time.

Ea-Nasir lived in the city of Ur but he was a member of a traders guild called the Alik Tilmun, which was based in Dilmun (Killgrove). Here's a map of the area:

Moyen Orient 3mil aC

Initially Ea-Nasir was considered a good credit risk and was advanced large amounts of copper (Rice). However, when Ea-Nasir started spending more time in Dilmun the complaint letters started piling up. It wasn't just that one famous letter from Nanni that everybody has heard of - it was many! According to Rice there are letters from:

  1. Abituram - who not only wanted his copper but threatened to call in his mortgages
  2. Imqui-Sin - who ended his plea for copper with the line: Do you not know how tired I am?
  3. Appa - who not only wants his copper but also a copper kettle that will hold a specific amount of water
  4. Ilsu-ellatsu - who appears to have been a partner of Ea-Nasir's, also had to write letters asking for his copper to be delivered
  5. Nanni - at least two letters are from him including the infamous complaint letter. How mad was Nanni with this situation? The tablet he wrote on was about the size of an iPhone 4 and he wrote on BOTH sides! Look up how to "write" cuneiform and then imagine writing an angry missive on that relatively small tablet on both sides.

Not included in Rice's listing is an absolutely fascinating missive sent by Ea-Nasir and an apparent business partner, Ilushu-illassu, to two of their clients. Here is the translation by mostlydeadlanguages of the Slightly Alive Translations tumblr:

Say to Shumun-libshi and the Zabardabbû: [1]

Ea-Naṣir and Ilushu-illassu say:

As for the situation with Mr. “Shorty” and Erissum-matim, who came here, don’t be scared.

I made them enter the temple of the Sun-God and take an oath. They said, “We didn’t come about these matters; we came for our businesses.”

I said, “I will write to them” — but they didn’t believe me!

He said, “I had a quarrel with Mr. Shumun-libshi.” He said, “[…] to his partner. I took, and you did not […] You didn’t give to me.”

Within 3 days, I’ll come to the city of Larsa.

Also, I spoke with Erissum-matim and said, “What is your sign?” [2]

I said to the kettle-maker (?), “Go with Ilum-gamil the Zabardabbû, and take the shortfall for me, and put it in the city of Enimma.”

Also, don’t neglect your […].

Also, I have given the ingots that we talked about to the men.

P.S. Don’t be critical! Get the […] from them! Don’t worry! We’ll come to you. [3]

[1] Zabardabbû is a Sumerian loanword that literally means “bronze-holder” but came to mean some sort of official title in the palace and temple. Given the context, though, it may literally mean “coppersmith” here.

[2] The “sign” could mean an occult omen, a personality type, or even a password.

[3] This “postscript” was written on the sides of the tablet.

Yes, a man legit called "Mr. Shorty" visited these clients of Ea-Nasir's and apparently made them nervous. This is giving me such Tarantino vibes.

So what ended up happening to our shady copper dealer? Rice points out that later on Ea-Nasir shows up as a dealer in the garment business which was apparently very profitable. But in later years he branched out into other less lucrative tradelines such as land speculation, usury and second-hand clothing. He even walled off part of his house and sold that part to a neighbor. Maybe his shady dealings finally caught up with him? Remember, he was living during a time of expansion and conquest - profits should have been rolling in. At least for someone who didn't repeatedly cheat his clients.

Works Cited

Horsnell, Malcolm J. A. “Why Year-Names? An Exploration into the Reasons for Their Use.” Orientalia, vol. 72, no. 2, 2003, pp. 196–203. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43076832. Accessed 10 Nov. 2022.

Killgrove, Kristina. “Meet the Worst Businessman of the 18th Century BC.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 11 May 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2018/05/11/meet-the-worst-businessman-of-the-18th-century/?sh=742a94b92d5d.

Middle_East_topographic_map-blank.svg: Sémhur (talk)derivative work: Zunkir, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

mostlydeadlanguages. "In this unpublished tablet...". Slightly Alive Translations. July 8, 2021. https://mostlydeadlanguages.tumblr.com/post/656166624810991616/ea-na%E1%B9%A3ir-reassures-two-men-uet-v-72

Rice, Michael. The Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf, Routledge, London, 2012.

Sigrist, Marcel, and Peter Damerow. “Mesopotamian Year Names.” T10K10.Htm, https://cdli.ucla.edu/tools/yearnames/HTML/T10K10.htm.

Van De Mieroop, Marc. 1993 "The Reign of Rim-Sin," Revue D'assyriologie Et D'archéologie Orientale 87 (1993): 47-69. Academia.edu, 12 Feb. 2017, https://www.academia.edu/31395955/1993_The_Reign_of_Rim_Sin_Revue_d_assyriologie_et_d_arch%C3%A9ologie_orientale_87_1993_47_69.