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 Past’s 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.
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.