This is a tale of two fellows linked by a letter of complaint: from Nanni the disgruntled customer, and Ea-nasir the merchant. It seems Nanni paid good money for products, and when his assistant went over to collect the items, he was offered third-rate merchandise and treated rudely. The irate customer wrote on every bit of the complaint form, detailing his many injuries at the hands of this shameful purveyor of shoddy goods. He made it absolutely clear that in the future the goods would be brought to Nanni’s own yard, and they’d better be top notch or he wasn’t paying.
The letter was found in Ea-nasir’s house along with some others, but we don’t know if Nanni got satisfaction. We can’t ask him, because Ea-nasir has vanished, along with his business, like dew on a desert breeze.
The letter was written on a clay tablet in Akkadian cuneiform, around 1750 BCE.
My son, who does his best to keep his old man appraised of all the geek things, sent me a meme involving Ea-nasir. It turned out to be but one of many, framed around “The World’s Oldest Complaint Letter”. There are also quite a few videos of variations of the same joke: Customer service hasn’t changed in four thousand years.
While I can appreciate the humor (such that it is), this isn’t what struck me about this artifact. It was the names. The further back you look in time, the fewer individuals can be seen. A thousand years back, we have records of the heads of state or notable churchmen and nobles whose names graced deeds or court records archived in stone buildings. Two thousand years ago, writing was perhaps more common in some locales but still available to a minuscule fraction of the general population, and almost no parchment or papyrus survived the ages; even the names of the mighty which were chiseled on stone are now too often weathered to obscurity.
Farther still, when writing was necessary for civilization to function yet still mystic enough to be wielded by specialists, a powerful man at the apex of a city-state would use some of his power to immortalize his likeness and his name on a stone tablet, or perhaps have the embellished story of his military victories drawn on baked clay; like as not such mementos would be destroyed or lost when the next big man came to power.
Yet the astoundingly short list of identities to survive the rise and fall of kingdoms, countries, languages and cultures, include two folks who were not great warriors, not great lords, not godspeakers. No, they were tradesfolk, strictly middle-tier.
To put it in perspective, imagine that millennia from now the museum talks mention the names of folks known in the North American continent: maybe half a dozen presidents, a few prime ministers, a few military figures and one or two social leaders. And on a shelf in one corner of museum is piece of paper – a miraculous missive to one Crazy Eddie, purveyor of used vehicles, from an angry Frank.
I was reminded of a scene in the movie The 13th Warrior. Buliwyf, the illiterate leader of a warband, had become intrigued by a civilized fellow’s magical ability to write (or as he put it, “draw words”). As he lies on his deathbed, he hinted to his friend his last request: “A man might be thought wealthy if someone were to draw the story of his deeds, that they may be remembered.” By that mark, Nanni and Ea-Nasir only have loose change in their accounts, but they remain among the richest people of the Bronze Age.
See the full translation of the tablet.