Saturday, January 28, 2012


Annunziata Rositani (ed.), Harvest Texts in the British Museum. Rivista degli studi orientali, nuova serie. Supplemento, no 1, vol. 82. Pisa; Roma: Fabrizio Serra editore, 2011. Pp. 209 p., CD-ROM. ISBN 9788862273282. €220.00 (pb).

Reviewed by L. R. Siddall, Shore School (

Version at BMCR home site

Annunziata Rositani has produced an excellent edition of 122 cuneiform documents from northern Babylonia (Sippar and Tell ed-Dēr), now kept in the British Museum. The texts are concerned with harvesting and date to the Old Babylonian Period from the reign of Hammurabi (1792-1750 BCE) to the reign of Samsu-ditana (1625-1595 BCE). The range of texts comprises tablets, bullae and parallel pipe tags, which deal with labour contracts, lists of numbers and personal names, lists of quantities of silver and barley, contracts for the loan of specific harvesters, records of debt and one text that records the accumulated interest for the harvest. All texts have been competently edited and well presented in digital format in the accompanying CD ROM. The high quality editions combined with Rositani's discussion of the texts make this volume a solid contribution to the study of Old Babylonian agricultural organization.

There are a number of features of the book that make it a useful tool for further research on harvesting in Mesopotamia. The texts edited here have been arranged chronologically within the different typologies to clarify the prospographical connections between the witnesses, creditors and debtors named in the texts. Another excellent feature of this work is that Rositani has incorporated all known harvest texts in her analyses and summary tables and charts. In addition to the tables and charts, Rositani provides a catalogue, indices and concordances with museum numbers and collections, all of which provide the reader with a good coverage of Old Babylonian documents which come under the category "harvest texts."

The book opens with an extensive introduction (pp. 11-43), which provides an overview of the typologies of the texts, summary of the content and past studies of harvest texts, analyses of the different forms of texts and the meaning of key phrases, and the changes and continuities present in this corpus of texts. While Rositani is conscious of the gaps in the evidence, some significant observations and proposals about the harvest texts emerge. Of these, there are three discussions that are particularly interesting for understanding the terms used in the texts, and ultimately how we should interpret the harvest texts.

The first is a difficult point regarding the relationship between the amount of silver or barley transacted and the number of harvesters and people involved in the loan contracts (pp. 15-22). Since the average amount recorded (½ shekel of silver) in the texts is far too low for paying a team of harvesters, Rositani argues that the assignment of silver (or barley) at the beginning of the text is a retainer for the task of hiring harvesters, not a payment for the harvesters. In support of this proposal, Rositani suggests that the phrase šu does not indicate that the goods were "borrowed", as often translated, to be repaid by the labour of the harvesters, rather it is "received" (which is closer to the standard meaning "to take"). Rositani argues that the confusion in modern scholarship has arisen out of the genre of the text: she points out that the scribes have used the format of a loan document to write a labour contract and observes that these texts do not contain clauses typical of loan contracts such as interest rate clauses.

Second, Rositani argues that the punishment clause ūl illak(ū)ma kīma simdat šarrim ("should he/they not complete the work (he/they will be punished) according to the decree of the king") is a fine, rather than a decree to fulfill the obligations stipulated in the text (pp. 22-23). Rositani draws on a few related texts to support this theory, but there is little in these cited texts to confirm this plausible idea.

Finally, Rositani reconsiders the meaning of the verb alāku in the conditional clauses of the labor contracts (pp. 23-28). The standard meaning of the verb is "to go," but idiomatically it can mean "to perform" a task, which is the usual way this verb has been translated. Rositani convincingly argues that the harvesters are not the subject of the verb, but the beneficiary of the silver/barley transaction. For Rositani, the beneficiary of the transaction is a labor contractor who hired harvesters for a conveyor who was responsible for the fields. Rositani goes on to argue that the verb alāku conveys the sense that the contractor was obliged to bring the harvesters to the field, which is closer to the standard meaning of the verb rather than the idiomatic expression. Interestingly, Rositani does not use this interpretation of alāku in the translations in chapter 1.

Rositani has edited the harvest texts by presenting transliterations and translations with commentaries on the texts over two chapters. Chapter one (pp. 67-162) contains the loan contracts and lists, and chapter two (pp. 163-193) contains the dockets and receipts. Each cuneiform document has been accurately edited and the cross-referencing between the texts is consistent throughout the book. In the reviewer's opinion, Rositani's method of presenting text editions is the best way of doing so. Each tablet has been expertly photographed and is entirely readable. Digital photography is at such an advanced stage that some scholars now favour digital images of cuneiform texts over hand copies in order to minimize the amount of interpretation and present as close a record of the artifact as possible. Interestingly, Rositani does not ascribe this practice to a particular philosophical or technical view on the accuracy of hand copies, but states that technical drawings of the tablets were not included because the content is so formulaic that copies were not required (p. 11, n. 1).

Rositani closes the book with useful indices of the texts divided by divine names, personal names, titles and occupations, and toponyms. The indices are followed by hand copies of broken and illegible signs from the texts.

The reviewer has one minor quibble with the CD ROM. The tablets are arranged according to their museum numbers rather than the order in which they appear in the book. It would have been easier to cross-check Rositani's edition with the photographs if they had appeared in the same order.

In sum, Rositani has produced a very good volume of harvest texts, which is a solid contribution to the study of Old Babylonian agriculture and economics. While there may be debate over some of Rositani's interpretations of the harvest texts, Assyriologists and scholars of ancient economics will profit from engaging with the discussions presented in this book.

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