The basic constituent of Mesopotamian society was the patriarchal family. Administrative documents from the major sites recorded people’s names and affiliation, but it is still difficult to get a clear picture of the family sizes and patterns of residence at any given period.
   From the archaeological record, it appears that extended families encompassing several generations and more than one couple with children were common in later prehistoric periods (see CHALCOLITHIC; URUK PERIOD). This can be deducted by the size of habitations, the number of fireplaces, and the number of individuals buried beneath the floor of houses. Such extended families formed productive units, pooling their labor and sharing resources. On the other hand, nuclear families, consisting of a couple with their (young) children, also existed, especially within larger groupings. There is no doubt that the several forms of family organization developed early, in response to different subsistence activities and social configurations. They persisted into later, historical periods. There is evidence from the Early Dynastic period that large households (oikos) were common (see SHURUPPAK), which included not only the members of the family but also servants and slaves (see ECONOMY). They could generate substantial revenues from enterprise, both commercial and agricultural. The land held by such a household could only be sold if all the male adults agreed, as sale contracts from the Akkad period document.
   The large state organizations (see PALACES) and the temples employed people of all ages and genders. Women and their children would work together in the manufactories of the Third Dynasty of Ur, for instance, producing textiles. Small family units could work on plots assigned to them by these organizations for a fixed percentage of the harvest. When a family experienced crop failures and could not meet their obligations, they had to take loans of silver or grain at often usurious rates. If the loans could not be paid either, the head of the family could pledge his own labor, and that of any of his children or his wife, or, in a more desperate move, sell them into slavery to raise capital. Excavations at Nippur have shown how in the Old Babylonian period wealthy, professional families lived in spacious houses, with domestic slaves, which in later, more difficult times were partitioned and occupied by poorer, more numerous families. In the Neo-Babylonian period, family firms, such as the Murashu or the Egibi, could conduct lucrative banking and investment business that continued for several generations. Such a practice can also be observed in the early second-millennium import-export family businesses at Assur.
   Some literary texts as well as proverbs allow some insights into the emotional comfort of family life. In the Old Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh epic, the “innkeeper” Siduri advises the hero to seek solace in the embrace of his wife and delight in the presence of his children. The 12th tablet of the epic describes the unhappy fate of the dead who have no children to offer libations for them, and it praises the lucky father of many sons who has an exalted position in the netherworld. Proverbs warn of the disruptive presence of pretty slave girls in the house and admonish the young to show respect for their elders.
   See also MARRIAGE.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.


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