As long as the early inhabitants of the ancient Near East lived in small bands, subsisting on hunting and gathering, they shared their resources equitably and made decisions collectively. The beginnings of social distinction and unequal access to resources are related to the process of sedentarization and agriculture in the Neolithic period. Control over land and the distribution of surplus were taken over by elite families who legitimized their power through rituals and feasting, as well as by providing military protection. The archaeological records of Chalcolithic tombs show a concentration of luxury goods, such as hand-painted pottery, weapons, and personal ornaments, which would only be given to deceased individuals of high standing. By the Uruk period, a proto-state system had evolved, in which high-ranking officials controlled a hierarchically ordered administrationthat ensured the collection and distribution of agricultural and artisanal products. The mass of the population was directly engaged in agrarian production—tilling fields, maintaining irrigation, and processing harvests—as well as in building monumental structures, such as temples, city walls, quays, and palaces. They received daily rations of barley, oil, and beer as sustenance. This general pattern persisted throughout Mesopotamian history.
   By the third millennium, urbanization had become widespread in the alluvial plains. Individual citiescould be governed by rulers with locally distinctive titles (for instance, en in Uruk, ensi in Lagash), which sometimes combine priestly and administrative roles, or by “kings” who rose to power by conquest (see KINGSHIP). Texts from the Early Dynastic period distinguish between commoners, termed “ration takers” or “bondsmen,” whose labor could be called upon for at least part of the year to undertake public works; slaves, increasingly acquired through warfare; and the elite, who owned their own land, engaged in trade, and played a prominent role in the local cult. In the second millennium, the Code of Hammurabialso shows a division into three “classes”: the free citizen (awilum), who owned property and had no obligation to serve; the mushkenum, who could hold property given to him by the king or temple or other high-ranking owners in return for specified services; and the slaves (wardum), who were themselves property of other people or institutions. These social divisions were permeable through the acquisition of property: slaves could legally own land and become manumitted; commoners could buy into lucrative offices and become wealthy owners of property themselves. The reverse process was also possible, as when free citizens became slaves through economic problems and incurred debt slavery.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.


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