Hear the Earliest Recorded Customer Complaint Letter: From Ancient Sumeria 1750 BC

Three-thou­sand, sev­en-hun­dred, and sev­en­ty-one years ago, in the city of Dil­mun, near Ur in Mesopotamia, there was a mer­chant named Ea-nasir. His busi­ness was in sell­ing met­al ingots that he pur­chased in the Per­sian Gulf. Was he a good mer­chant? Not accord­ing to one of his cus­tomers, Nan­ni. If Yelp had exist­ed back in 1750 BC, Nan­ni would def­i­nite­ly have giv­en Ea-nasir a one-star review.

We know this because Nanni’s com­plaint about Ea-nasir, writ­ten in Akka­di­an cuneiform, still exists. The tiny 4.5x2x1 inch tablet is cur­rent­ly on dis­play at the British Muse­um, and was dis­cov­ered by archae­ol­o­gist Sir Leonard Woo­ley in his 1920s exca­va­tion of Ur.

In the video above, Voic­es of the Pasts David Kel­ly brings Nanni’s com­plaint to life with his read­ing of the com­plaint.

Ea-nasir had agreed to sell cop­per ingots to Nan­ni, who sent a ser­vant with some mon­ey to pick them up. Not only were the ingots of low qual­i­ty, but Ea-nasir was rude to the ser­vant, giv­ing him the ol’ “take it or leave it” treat­ment. And not only that, but the ser­vant had to trav­el through ene­my ter­ri­to­ry. And for all the things Nanni’s done for Ea-nasir! (You can just imag­ine Nan­ni pick­ing out a fresh clay tablet and get­ting down to some furi­ous cuneiformin’.)

David Kelly’s read­ing brings out some of the haughty anger from Nanni’s com­plaint, but I won­der if Kel­ly is being too nice. Maybe Voic­es of the Past should hire a New York cab­bie to have a go the next time they find some sev­er­al-mil­len­nia-old ephemera from Ea-nasir’s for­mer busi­ness quar­ters. We don’t know if Nan­ni ever set­tled his dis­pute, but appar­ent­ly he wasn’t the only one.

The room that Sir Leonard exca­vat­ed con­tained many com­plaints from many cus­tomers, includ­ing sev­er­al back and forths from frus­trat­ed peo­ple all over Mesopotamia. Accord­ing to this Forbes arti­cle, Ea-nasir did have a legit prof­itable busi­ness once, but as his debt grew, the cred­i­tors came call­ing, and he began to stiff peo­ple. What makes Nanni’s let­ter stand out is that he used both the front and back of the tablet to write his with­er­ing assess­ment. We’ve all seen those kind of let­ters.

The full text from Nan­ni reads:

Now, when you had come, you spoke say­ing thus: ‘I will give good ingots to Gim­il-Sin’; this you said to me when you had come, but you have not done it. You have offered bad ingots to my mes­sen­ger, say­ing ‘If you will take it, take it; if you will not take it, go away.’ Who am I that you are treat­ing me in this man­ner — treat­ing me with such con­tempt? and that between gen­tle­men such as we are. I have writ­ten to you to receive my mon­ey, but you have neglect­ed [to return] it. Repeat­ed­ly you have made them [mes­sen­gers] return to me emp­ty-hand­ed through for­eign coun­try. Who is there amongst the Dil­mun traders who has act­ed against me in this way? You have treat­ed my mes­sen­ger with con­tempt. And fur­ther with regard to the sil­ver that you have tak­en with you from my house you make this dis­cus­sion. And on your behalf I gave 18 tal­ents of cop­per to the palace, and Sumi-abum also gave 18 tal­ents of cop­per, apart from the fact that we issued the sealed doc­u­ment to the tem­ple of Samas. With regard to that cop­per, as you have treat­ed me, you have held back my mon­ey in a for­eign ter­ri­to­ry, although you are oblig­at­ed to hand it over to me intact. You will learn that here in Ur I will not accept from you cop­per that is not good. In my house, I will choose and take the ingots one by one. Because you have treat­ed me with con­tempt, I shall exer­cise against you my right of select­ing the cop­per.

It’s kind of com­fort­ing in its own weird way, know­ing that find­ing a good busi­ness you can trust has been an eter­nal quest, whether you’re try­ing to get a refund from eBay or look­ing at some low qual­i­ty ingots and deal­ing with a very annoyed ser­vant.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sor Cooks 4000-Year-Old Recipes from Ancient Mesopotamia, and Lets You See How They Turned Out

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in the Orig­i­nal Akka­di­an and Enjoy the Sounds of Mesopotamia

Dic­tio­nary of the Old­est Writ­ten Language–It Took 90 Years to Com­plete, and It’s Now Free Online

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.