Runaways and Fugitive-Catchers during the Third Dynasty of Ur

in Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient
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The study of flight provides insight into life at the bottom of society during the Third Dynasty of Ur (c. 2100-2000 bce). Examples of individual rebellion and its consequences display the perspectives of members of non-elite and elite, advancing Adams’s conclusion (2010, §6.1) that the boundaries between slaves and other lower-stratum individuals were fluid and poorly defined. This study also references the earliest known attestation of the concept of reform through detainment.

Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

Journal d'Histoire Economique et Sociale de l'Orient



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Snell (1997) focuses on salability in his overview history of the ancient Near East. Although some slaves were never sold, it is the possibility of sale that is the key feature of slavery in Snell’s view (1997: 21). More recently, Snell mentions salability as a criterion for a “traditional” definition of slavery, after which he mentions and employs, to some extent, Patterson’s definition (1982: 13; 2008: 34-35), only to return to the question of salability for his conclusion (Snell 2011: 4, 20-21). In the study of the ancient Near East, legal approaches to defining the term “slave” have also been employed. Westbrook (1995: 1634) offers a definition that isolates some of the problems with the native terminology and the numerous hierarchical relationships, such as a king and a vassal, together with statements of deference, which are expressed by using similar terminology in the ancient Near East. Westbrook elaborates on overlap in servile conditions faced by many in the ancient Near East by distinguishing servility in family, serfdom, debt slavery (distraints), and servility ex delicto (kiššātum) between the status of chattel slaves (Westbrook 1995: 1635-38). In another article, Westbrook’s position becomes even clearer (Westbrook 1996: 458). He uses the issue of alienability to distinguish between different servile relationships and chattel slavery. Dahl’s (2010) study advances Struve’s (1969) approach by pursuing economic questions, while Culbertson (2011) applies a “life-course” theory to slavery in relation to children of the Ur iii period. Studevent-Hickman (2008: 143-45) compliments Steinkeller’s writing on terms such as eren2 to understand other problematic terminology. Steinkeller (2004: 93-94; 2013: 350-351) develops his idea that the Ur iii system was an “erenage system,” referring to any subject of the king. Koslova (2008) has discussed the term dumu-gi7 in Umma and demonstrated that it is largely synonymous with eren2. Interestingly, these terms have been thought to refer to people who are non-slaves (Koslova 2008, 152), the free (Steinkeller 2013: 350), or, on the basis of legal texts, “a slave who has been freed” for the dumu-gi7 (Westbrook 2003; Civil 2011: 254). Nevertheless, at least in certain contexts of the Ur iii period, eren2 is a term that can refer clearly to people who are slaves (note, below, the fugitive-catcher texts from Iri-Sagrig; see also Heimpel 2009: 63).


Nisaba 15, 1046, however, refers to runaway men (lu2-na-me na-ba-tum2).


See discussion in Brunke 2013: 212.


See Morris and Rothman 1998: vii. Many intellectuals discussed the benefits and problems of prison systems, but the actual discussion of prisons as an historical phenomenon is relatively recent.


Molina and Such-Gutiérrez 2004: 9.


See the discussion in Steinkeller 1991.


See discussion in Lafont and Westbrook 2002: 221. See also Wilcke 2002: 311, no. 82.


See Dahl 2010: 286 no. 34. The identification of individuals in texts is notoriously difficult. Even when more than one text includes the same name, it is possible that more than one person is meant. Despite this and the abbreviated name in sat 3, 1502, it seems probable the same person is involved, on the basis of the name, profession, contexts, and dates included in these texts. Abbreviated names are not problematic. Andersson (2012: 62) writes, “Personal names in bureaucratic contexts, could easily be abbreviated since they were secondary to the bottom line: the number of units at disposal, disbursed, dispatched, rented, borrowed, received, or missing. But even when looking at sources where one could expect more precision, and the writing out of otherwise normally abbreviated names, e.g. commemorative inscriptions on objects presented to gods, serving to remind the divinities of their subjects’ piety, one can not detect any distinct differences in the way the names were written. . . . After a close look at the Sumerian onomastic corpus it is clear that any element in phrase and clause names could be discarded.”


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