More Inventions of the Ancient Near East

Part 1 – A Gallery of Inventions: Some Lesser Known Firsts from the Ancient Near East.
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

My post from last month highlighting a number of less well known inventions from the ancient Near East proved quite popular, so a sequel is of course forthcoming. Once again, this series avoids covering well known innovations like cities, writing, schools, agriculture and the wheel. Here are some more inventions that you may not know came from the ancient Near East.

1. Investment Banking

The Great Ziggurat of Ur. Sumerian temples played a major role in the ancient Mesopotamian economy.

Modern banking traces its origins to Babylonian temples in the early 2nd millennium BC. Ancient Mesopotamian temples always had a redistributive economic function. Temples took in donations and tax revenue and amassed great wealth. They then redistributed these goods to people in need such as widows, orphans, and the poor (sometimes the temples became corrupt and hoarded wealth, but that’s a topic for another article).

After a thousand years of this, the priests who ran the temples were literally sitting on giant piles of money. So around the time of Hammurabi (in the 18th century BC), they began to make loans. Old Babylonian temples made numerous loans to poor and needy entrepreneurs. The loans were made at reduced below-market interest rates lower than those offered on loans given by private individuals, and sometimes arrangements were made for the creditor to make food donations to the temple instead of repaying interest.[1]

Nevertheless, the temples still lacked many of the features of a full bank. They did not take deposits, issue checks, or engage in fractional reserve banking. They were religious institutions offering loans as a charity service, closer to modern microfinance initiatives than to Goldman Sachs.

Something closer to modern banking emerged in the neo-Babylonian period in the 7th century BC. Banking was conducted by certain families who passed the trade on from parents to children. The Ea-iluta-bani family of the city of Borsippa was active from 687 to 487 BC. Beginning as mid-level land owners possessing several tracts of agricultural land, the men of the family married well, received decent sized dowries, and invested their liquid assets (mostly silver and food products) in loans.

Cuneiform tablet detailing a loan of silver, c. 1800 BC. The text reads:
“3 1/3 silver sigloi, at interest of 1/6 sigloi and 6 grains per sigloi, has Amurritum, servant of Ikun-pi-Istar, received on loan from Ilum-nasir. In the third month she shall pay the silver.”
1 sigloi=8.3 grams.

Numerous contract documents have been recovered which list recipients of loans, the amount loaned, the term of the loan and the interest rate to be paid. When the loan was repaid, the tablet was usually broken. This gives us a possibly skewed picture of loans, because the only tablets we can read are from the loans that were not repaid.

What we can tell is that the Ea-iluta-bani family generally loaned at 20% annual interest. In other cases, possibly when the debtor was less reliable, items were taken as security in lieu of interest. If the loan was not repaid, the item would be kept and sold. Sometimes the security was an item that increased in value, such as a slave that could perform service for the creditors for the duration of the loan. This was in effect a disguised form of interest.

The Ea-iluta-bani family tended to make about half of their loans in silver and the other half in food products. There were no coins in use, so silver was measured by weight and purity. Silver had the advantage of having a fairly constant value. Food products on the other hand tended to decrease in value shortly after the harvest time and increase in value during times of the year when they were less plentiful. The family, therefore, tried structure contracts so as to lend out foodstuffs when they were cheapest and get repaid when they were more more expensive, making a greater profit.

Silver, on the other hand, could be loaned out at any time. 80% of our surviving contracts are for periods six months or less, but this may simply indicate that short term loans were less likely to be repaid. The Ea-iluta-bani family women would often loan out their dowry as a long term investment in order to make a steady stream of profit from interest payments.

By the time of the Persian Empire, finance was a major business in the cities Babylon, Borsippa, Sippar, Uruk, Nippur, Uruk, Larsa and Ur. Banking families such as the Egbi in Babylon, Iddin-Nabu of Babylon and Murashu of Nippur became very wealthy and even engaged in international commerce with countries outside of Mesopotamia. The Murashu broadened their investments under Persian rule, in addition to simple loans they branched out into real estate and managed and rented land. Due to their large land holdings, the Murashu family became extremely powerful in Persian-controlled Mesopotamia. They may have become too powerful. All record of their activity ceases after the 10th year of Darius II in 413 BC. Either the records are lost, or Darius moved to end their power.[2]

2. Poison Gas

In AD 256, the Sassanid Persians under Shah Shapur I laid siege to the Roman border fortress town of Dura-Europos in Syria on the Euphrates River. During the assault, the Persians built several siege ramps. They also dug a number of mines to try and cause the walls of the fortress to collapse.[3]

Aerial view of the fortress town of Dura-Europos, on the west bank of the Euphrates on the border of Roman Syria. Tower 19 was situated in the middle of the wall to the left side of the picture.


A Gallery of Inventions

Part 2: More Inventions of the Ancient Near East
Part 3 – Tatian, Clement of Alexandria and the Battle for History.

It is not a stretch to say that the ancient Near East is known in the modern world primarily for its inventions. World-changing Near Eastern inventions such as agriculture, metallurgy, the wheel, writing and the chariot are well known. Yet, these are just the tip of the iceberg of ancient Near Eastern ingenuity and engineering. Here, we will examine some more familiar everyday items that trace their origins to the ancient Near East.

1. Pin Tumbler Locks

Simple barred doors are effective at keeping people out of something, but they suffer from a major flaw: They can’t be opened from the outside. You can lock your front door to keep intruders out at night, but a barred door won’t do you any good to keep people out of your house when you’re not there.

So the solution was to figure out ways to lock and unlock doors from the outside. At around 2000 BC, the Egyptians invented a complex key system that involved using strings to manipulate several cylindrical pieces of wood through a hole. When the space between the cylinders on the string lined up with the edge of the door, the door opened.

Modern replica of an Assyrian pin lock. The back plate would be bolted to the outside of a door. The paddle-shaped object is the key, which is inserted into the bar and pushes up the pins, allowing the bar to be removed.

A less clunky and more elegant solution to the problem came from Assyria. The palace of Sargon II at Khorsabad (built from 717-706 BC) featured a new type of lock that used loose pins to hold the bolt in place. This was a simple version of the modern pin tumbler locks used on most doors in the modern world.

This lock worked by putting the bar on the outside of the door instead of the inside. This bar had a notch cut into it, and holes drilled into the top. When the bar was in place, loose pins in the door dropped into the holes and held the bar in place. To unlock the door, a key with pins sticking out of the end that matched the holes was inserted into the notch and used to push the pins upwards, allowing the bar to be slid free of the door.

The Romans later copied this design, and modern pin tumbler locks operate on the same principles. Their main improvements in modern locks have been to make the pins different lengths (so different keys open different doors), make the whole system smaller and add rotation to make it easier to open.[1]

2. Penicillin

Ancient Egypt was famous throughout the ancient world for its advanced medical practice and excellent doctors. Numerous papyri survive which contain instructions on the diagnosis and treatment of injuries. While doctors in the rest of the world were a singular profession, Egyptian doctors developed a range of specialized fields including dentistry, gynecology and proctology. While many of the prescriptions for drugs are now known to be useless, in some cases the Egyptians stumbled upon something useful.[2]

The Edwin Smith surgical papyrus, a textbook on treating wounds, head trauma, fractures and spinal injuries of the upper body that dated from the 17th century, recommended the following diagnosis and treatment for a wound that appeared to be infected:

If thou examinest a man having a diseased wound in his breast, while that wound is inflamed and a whirl of inflammation continually issues from the mouth of that wound at thy touch; the two lips of that wound are ruddy, while that man continues to be feverish from it; his flesh cannot receive a bandage, that wound cannot take a margin of skin; the granulation which is in the mouth of that wound is watery, their surface is not and secretions drop therefrom in an oily state.

Thou shouldst say concerning him: “One having a diseased wound in his breast, it being inflamed, (and) he continues to have fever from it. An ailment which I will treat.”

Thou shalt make for him cool applications for drawing out the inflammation from the mouth of the wound:

a. Leaves of willow, nbs’-tree ksnty. Apply to it.

b. Leaves of ym’-tree, dung. hny-t’, ksnty, Apply to it. Thou shalt make for him applications for drying up the wound: a. Powder of green pigment wsb-t, thn.t, grease. Triturate bind upon it.[3]

Blue Penicillum bread mold, whose antibiotic qualities were utilized but not fully understood by the ancient Egyptians.

We now know that willow bark has antiseptic qualities that reduce inflammation. Later Egyptian doctors took this treatment further and began prescribing “bread in a rotten condition” to be applied to infected wounds that were discharging pus. Blue bread mold is better known in the medical world by its scientific name Penicillum, making the ancient Egyptians the first to use antibiotics.[4]

Some scientists have expressed skepticism that the amount of penicillin absorbed would have been enough to be effective, but even trace amounts applied directly to a wound would have had some effect on the infection.[5]

The Egyptians did not know that infection was caused by bacteria and did not understand the scientific principles underlying the use of antibiotics. Rather, they figured out the effectiveness of bread mold by trial and error. While throwing anything at an infected wound in hopes that something would work, some Egyptian doctor somewhere decided to try moldy bread, and – surprise -  he got results.


The Trojan Horse

The Trojan Horse is one of the most recognizable literary motifs in the western world. The legend is familiar: Odysseus came up with the plot to open the gates of Troy by a trick. Epeios the carpenter built a wooden horse in the camp, and Odysseus and a handful of picked men hid inside. The Greek fleet sailed away, the Trojans took the horse inside the city, where the Greeks emerged and opened the gates for the returning Greek army. And thus the term “Trojan Horse” entered the western world’s vernacular to describe any method of gaining access through deception.

(In fact, while writing this post my computer was infected with the modern version of the Trojan Horse, an event partly responsible for the delayed posting of the past two weeks).

Ironically, the most recognizable symbol of the Homeric age is barely mentioned in Homer. The horse does not appear at all in the Iliad and only appears briefly in the Odyssey, where Menelaus is recounting Odysseus’ deeds during the siege of Troy:

What a piece of work the hero dared and carried off
in the wooden horse where all our best men encamped,
our champions armed with bloody death to Troy…[1]

The most detailed account of the horse appears in Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid. The Greeks build the horse, hide their chosen men inside of it, and sail away. The Trojans take the horse inside their city, thinking it is a votive offering. The Greeks wait until nightfall, break out and open the gates. The same story is told by the 4th century AD Greek poet Quintus Smyrnaeus in his The Fall of Troy.

The Mykonos Vase, one of the earliest depictions of the Trojan Horse legend.

Even though detailed accounts of the Trojan Horse legend appear only in later works, art from around the time of Homer indicates that the legend was widely known in early Greece. A fibula brooch from around 680 BC shows a fragment of a horse with wheels. A detailed relief on the outside of a storage jar from Mykonos which dates to between 675 and 650 BC contains a much more detailed depiction of a horse hiding armed men inside.[2]

Therefore, while the Trojan Horse is barely mentioned in Homer, the story was obviously part of the collection of folklore surrounding the Trojan War which swirled around the popular consciousness of early Greece. Some of these stories found their way into Homer’s authoritative collation, and some did not.

As has been discussed before on this site, the ancient Greeks knew that Homer was writing fiction and that the stories and folklore were not works of history. A few ancient writers mentioned possible explanations for the Trojan Horse legend. The Greek 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias wrote of the legend that “Anyone who does not suppose that Phrygians are utterly stupid will have realized that what Epeios built was an engineer’s device for breaking down the wall.”[3] In a chapter on the origins of various inventions, the Roman Pliny the Elder wrote that “The battering-horse, for the destruction of walls, which is at the present day styled the “ram,” was invented by Epeus, at Troy.”[4] Generally, ancient writers seemed to have believed that the Trojan Horse had been some sort of siege weapon, probably a battering ram.


The First Economic Reforms

The Sumerian city-state of Lagash has some of our earliest documented evidence for how a city was administered. We don’t know when the city was founded, but it existed as early as 2500 BC. Lagash was near the coast, or at least the coast as it was 4500 years ago. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers have since filled in much of the former Persian Gulf with silt.

Sumerian city-states were ruled by kings. The king was an absolute sovereign, who had both a secular function as ruler of his city and a religious function as an intermediary between the citizens and the gods. The king was supposed to intercede with the gods on behalf of his people, and honor the gods to ensure their continued benevolence towards the city. If the king neglected the gods, the gods could in turn be expected to neglect the city.[1]

Part of this duty involved building large temples as public works projects in order to honor the gods. Inside these temples, food offerings were left to the gods. Food offerings had to be collected from the populace. Over time, the temple grew to be a major center of government and economic activity. Sumerian temples employed numerous priests, priestesses and administrative staff. Scribes, archivists, storage supervisors and other administrators were required to make the operation run. Hundreds of laborers were employed to move items and undertake new construction projects.

Temples came to own large tracts of farmland. This provided more jobs for agricultural workers, who delivered the produce to the temple storehouses in return for being allowed to keep some of it for their own use. Cash did not exist in Sumer, rather, trade was done by bartering and wealth was primarily accumulated in barley and livestock.

What did the temple do with all this food? Some of it was used in ritual offerings to the gods. Most of it was distributed to employees of the temple as well as temple dependents – the old, orphans, the very poor and the widows. The temple therefore functioned partly as a religious charity and partly as a system of income redistribution.[2]



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