Based on the earliest cuneiform sources from late 4th to early 3rd millennium Southern Mesopotamia, this research project aimed to provide an examination of the cuneiform evidence related to sheep husbandry, its economic significance, and its administrative aspects.


Beginning with the invention of cuneiform ca. 3300 BC, the society and economy of Southern Mesopotamia are abundantly documented by thousands of cuneiform texts, mostly written in Sumerian. The vast majority consists of administrative records from the archives of large, state-run economic households. These households held the property of almost all resources, such as arable land, orchards, reed-thickets and livestock, including cattle, swine, sheep and goats, and employed and provided for large parts of the population. Thousands of archival records testify to their activities in agriculture, horticulture, crafts, fishery, and breeding.

This likewise applies to the ca. 5000 so-called archaic texts from Uruk, datable to ca. 3300-2900 BC, which include administrative and lexical texts. Though these texts stem from secondary contexts, they have been assigned to several offices controlled by the central administration, one of which dealt with domesticated animals and their products. Complemented by smaller sets of archival records from other places in Southern Mesopotamia, these sources provide the earliest written evidence pertaining to sheep husbandry and textile production.

These cuneiform texts testify to a fully-developed terminology, which largely corresponds to that of later 3rd millennium sources in Sumerian and differentiates sheep and goat according to sex, age, fertility, and race, including fat-tailed and wool sheep. Their economic significance is emphasized by the fact that these are usually referred to by generic designation for sheep par excellence, which features prominently among the most frequently-attested cuneiform signs.

Herding accounts refer to flocks of sheep, which consisted of an average of ca. 70 animals. These were entrusted to shepherds, who were expected to deliver quota of dairy products and were responsible for moving flocks of sheep to the meadows and pastures nearby; evidence for transhumance is lacking. Obviously, these accounts represent the lower level of administration.

Summary accounts mention as much as 1400 sheep, including large quantities of wool and dairy products. The officials involved feature among the most high-ranking functionaries mentioned in a list of professions and functionaries. As this list is thought to represent the hierarchical organization of the Uruk state, the summary accounts appear to have been drawn up by an office of the central administration, which was responsible for domestic animals and their products. Thus, sheep husbandry and textile production appear to have been highly centralized and embedded in the state economy.

Dairy products, wool, skins, and multi-colored textiles are referred to in administrative as well as lexical texts. But as the different steps in the production of textiles, such as the shearing of sheep, attested for the first time in Early Dynastic I/II archival records from Ur ca. 2700 BC, are never referred to, a reconstruction of the chaine d’operatoire from sheep to garment is yet impossible.

Related Publication

Cornelia Becker, Norbert Benecke, Ana Grabundžija, Hans Christian Küchelmann, Susan Pollock, Wolfram Schier, Chiara Schoch, Ingo Schrakamp, Brigitta Schütt and Martin Schumacher, “The Textile Revolution. Research into the Origin and Spread of Wool Production between the Near East and Central Europe”, in: Space and Knowledge. Topoi Research Group Articles, eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies, Special Volume 6 (2016), 102–151