One of the usual annoyances these days is bad customer service. We have all experienced it in one form or another. Displeased customers can either just ignore the bad service and move on or file a complaint. Nowadays, writing a complaint letter is simple. You don’t have to even leave your home to do so. This is made possible thank to modern technology.
Some may assume that the idea of writing a complaint letter was not that old. However, this idea may have existed since the time when humans learned to write, as the following story shows.
A Complaint Letter from Ancient Times
Image: British Museum
A tablet unearthed in 1953 contained what could be one of the oldest complaint letters. It is estimated that the letter was written in 1750 BC. So, it can be said that people have been writing complaint letters at least 3750 years ago. The tablet is now displayed in the British Museum.
The letter was written in cuneiform, the system of writing invented by the Sumerians. Cuneiform literally means “wedge-shaped”. It’s formed by using a blunt reed as a stylus to scratch signs on a moist clay. Heating up the moist clay would turn it into a clay tablet with the distinguished wedge-shaped marks of the cuneiform.
Nanni, a copper trader, was upset that the copper supplier Ea-Nāṣir did not provide him good quality copper ingots as promised. He was also angered by Ea-Nāṣir’s disrespectful attitude. The following is the translation of the letter:
Tell Ea-Nāṣir: Nanni sends the following message:
When you came, you said to me as follows: “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Ṣit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”
What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 18 talents of copper, and Sumi-abum has likewise given 18 talents of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Šamaš.
How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.
Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.
(Note: 1 talent is approximately equal to 25 kg and 60 minas are equal to 1 talent.)
It is easy to see why Nanni was outraged. After all, Babylonian traders value honor and strongly condemn deceptive business practices. The Code of Hammurabi, which is one of the oldest legal codes enacted by the sixth Babylonian King Hammurabi, also listed several provisions regarding fair trade. For instance, Law No. 104 stated that “If a merchant gives an agent corn, wool, oil, or any other goods to transport, the agent shall give a receipt for the amount, and compensate the merchant therefor. Then he shall obtain a receipt from the merchant for the money that he gives the merchant.” Trading during the times of the ancient Babylonians was more complex than many would think.
When I did further research, it turned out that Ea-Nāṣir was quite a notorious businessman. There are serval more correspondences that described his underhanded dealings. Unfortunately, many of them are damaged. So we could only glean some fragments of the letters.
One trader named Nigga-Nana ordered copper from Ea-Nāṣir. However, even after Ea-Nāṣir got the payment, Nigga-Nana did not receive the copper. Thus, he had Abituram, his intermediary, write to Ea-Nāṣir. Abituram wrote:
The silver and its profit give it to Nigga-Nanna […] I have made you issue a tablet. Why have you not given the copper? If you do not give it, I will bring in your pledges.
Still, Nigga-Nanna seemed to not receive his copper as the next letter written by Inqui-Sin, another one of his agents, clearly shows the writer’s vexation:
Speak to Ea-Nāṣir: thus says Imqui-Sin. May Shamash bless your life. Give good copper under seal to Nigga-Nanna. Now you have had one issue ten shekels of silver. In order that your heart shall not be troubled give good copper to him. Do you not know how tired I am? And when you arrive with Itsu-Rabi take it away and give it to Nigga-Nanna.
Here is another letter from an annoyed customer, Ili-Idinnam:
Speak to Ea-Nāṣir: thus says Ili-Idinnam. Now, the work you have done is good! (sarcastic). One year ago, I paid silver, In a foreign country, you only hold back bad copper. Please bring your copper.
Ea-Nāṣir’s business partner, Ilsu-ellatsu, had him figured out. So, he wrote the following letter to Ea-Nāṣir warning him to avoid upsetting an important customer:
Speak to Ea-Nāṣir: thus says Ilsu-ellatsu, with regard to the copper of Idin-Sin. Izija will come to you. Show him 15 ingots so that he may select 6 good ingots and give him these. Act in such a way that Idin-Sin will not become angry.
It’s curious to note that human nature hasn’t changed that much after all those years. Indeed, the more things change, the more things stay the same. The tablets concerning Ea-Nāṣir may not be considered a significant discovery but they gave us the opportunity to learn about the more mundane side of the of an ancient civilization which may be more similar to ours than we expect. Only approximately 10 percent of the unearthed ancient clay tablets were translated. So, who knows what we will find next.
References (Click to Show)
- W. F. Leemans (1960). Foreign Trade in the old Babylonian Period as Revealed by Texts from Southern Mesopotamia.
- A. Leo Oppenheim (1967). Letters From Mesopotamia: Official, Business, and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millennia.
- Michael Rice (2002). The Archeology of the Arabian Gulf.
- Clay tablet with oldest recorded customer-service complaint on display at the British Museum
- Marc Van de Mieroop (1985). Society and enterprise in Old Babylonian Ur.
- British Museum – tablet
- Paolo Brusasco (2007). The Archaeology of Verbal and Nonverbal Meaning: Mesopotamian Domestic Architecture and its Textual Dimension.