Did you know that many elements of today's business world have origins in the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East? The people who made these innovations responded to the needs of their times. These objects from the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago show that profit-seeking motives and marketing of commodities are by no means modern phenomena.
From at least 2000 BC, Mesopotamians used silver coils as an early form of money, which allowed them to clip off a piece of a certain weight to make an exchange. By 650 BC, the first coins were developed in Lydia, Western Turkey. One of these early Lydian coin-makers was King Croesus - hence the phrase "rich as Croesus."
Lydian Silver Stater of King Croesus (560-545 BC) by CroesusOriental Institute Museum
Lydian Coin of King Croesus
By stamping his sign on lumps of electrum (an alloy of gold and silver), a ruler could guarantee the value of these new coins.
Marketing Money, Taxing the People
From around 330 BC, Alexander the Great and his successors, the Ptolemies, faced a problem after they conquered Egypt. They did business with coins, but Egyptians made exchanges using weighed lumps of silver, grain, and other goods. The Ptolemies incentivized coin use by paying state employees in coins and by requiring each man and woman to pay an annual “salt tax” in coins. Once the tax was paid, a scribe issued a receipt.
Ptolemaic Silver CoinOriental Institute Museum
For the ancient Ptolemies, the eagle symbolized imperial power and royalty. In Ptolemaic Egypt, the eagle clutching a thunderbolt symbolized the Ptolemies' patron deity, the Greek god Zeus.
Ptolemaic Bronze Coin (-0221/0205) by Ptolemy IIIOriental Institute Museum
In Egypt ca. 250-200 BC, the Ptolemaic economy was based on silver, but natural silver was extremely scarce in Egypt. To deal with the shortage, rulers minted cheaper, easier-to-produce bronze coins.
Ostracon with Demotic Tax Receipt (Ptolemaic, Year 34 of Ptolemy II, 251 BC)Oriental Institute Museum
This ostracon (clay jar fragment) is inscribed in Demotic with a receipt for the salt tax, a capitation tax levied on most men and women. It was issued to Amenothes and recorded his payment. In the accompanying video, Professor Brian Muhs discusses "Death and Taxes in Ancient Egypt."
Making Money Liquid
Minting coins wasn’t cheap. In Egypt around 250–200 BC, the economy was based on silver, which was extremely scarce locally. To deal with the shortage, Ptolemaic rulers minted large bronze (copper alloy) coins which were cheaper and easier to produce. Later, the Romans ran a massive economy based on coins but found it costly to mint them. Around 300 AD, they began to condone the making of counterfeit coins using molds. Counterfeiters cheated the currency system but also helped maintain it by increasing the number of coins.
Over 5,000 years ago, early Mesopotamian accounting systems were developed using clay tokens. Tokens, which may have symbolized units of commodities, were packed in a hollow clay ball, then impressed with a seal. The sealed ball could be opened to verify the quantities of goods delivered.
These clay "tokens" were produced in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. It is thought that the different shapes and sizes indicated different types or numbers of materials that were being tracked through the use of these administrative devices.
Intact Clay Envelope With Seal Impressions (Late Uruk Period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum
Pyramidal Tokens (Late Uruk period, 3350-3100 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum
These tetrahedron tokens may have been used to count days of labor, while many other tokens are thought to represent commodities such as grain, sheep, or nails.
Signed and Sealed
A cylinder seal allowed the rolling out of a “signature” onto a soft clay tablet or tag. Once the clay dried, it was tamper-proof. Seals identified individuals or a particular office. They also came in the form of stamps or rings. Contracts were written on clay tablets like the one displayed here, and included dates and signatures. Along its edges are seal impressions of witnesses.
Cylinder Seal with Modern Impression (Ur III Period, 2100-2000 BC) by ShulgiOriental Institute Museum
Scaraboid Stamp Seal and Modern Impression (Iron Age II, 1000-550 BC)Oriental Institute Museum
Seleucid Legal Text (Sale Of A House Plot) (Hellenistic Period, Seleucid Dynasty, 10 July 223 BC) by UnknownOriental Institute Museum
This cuneiform tablet documents the sale of real estate in the city of Uruk. The eye-shaped depressions on the edges of the tablet are the ring-seal impressions of the witnesses to the transaction, which confirm the validity of the contract. Sale documents from the Hellenistic period are some of the latest examples of cuneiform writing, which fell out of use sometime during the first or second century AD.
Balance scales and small standardized stone balance weights (later glass and metal) were perfect tools for keeping track of valuable materials, especially precious metals.
Nearly four thousand years ago, Assyrian merchants from Iraq established a trading community at Kültepe in central Turkey. They carried out the earliest known market-based private trade and arbitrage — the simultaneous buying and selling of goods for profit. They imported and sold tin and textiles to the local population, in exchange for silver, gold, and other goods, often at great profit. This letter discusses the purchase of animals and a business dispute with a third party.
How can a business signal to a consumer its goods are different from and better than those made by others? Ancient wine producers used vessels with stamped handles to identify and brand their wine.These handles are from amphorae (wine jars) exported from the Greek island of Rhodes, a major producer of wine in the ancient Mediterranean.
Based on the special exhibit Doing Business in the Ancient World displayed at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business in collaboration with the Oriental Institute, curated by Jack Green and Brittany Hayden.
The online version of Doing Business in the Ancient World was compiled and arranged by Foy Scalf.