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“Let’s move the earth and build a canal!” The management of water infrastructures in a Sumerian city at the end of the third millennium

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The birth and the development of Mesopotamian civilization has been seen as being intrinsically linked to the building of water-related infrastructure to “tame” the environment. Therefore, earthwork projects and the building of reservoirs, dams and canals were essential for the development of the society and for the survival of the Mesopotamian cities. The majority of the documentation comes from the last century of third millennium BC, in the so-called Ur III (or Third Dynasty of Ur) period (conventionally dated to 2112–2004 BC). Among the tens of thousands administrative tablets of this period, we have numerous documents describing the building and repair of canals or their components that shed light on the administrative management of this crucial sector. The main purpose of this paper is to describe the role of the administrative officials in charge of managing the earthworks, in the province of Umma, in Southern Mesopotamia.

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  1. The abbreviations used in this article are listed in Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) web-site, available at (November 5th, 2019) We need to add AS (Amar-Sin), IS (Ibbi-Sin), PN (personal name), ŠS (Šu-Sin), and Š (Šulgi). The texts are transliterated using the following conventions: the “/” points out the end of line, whilst “//” indicates an indented line.

  2. Although the importance of wetlands in the development of prehistoric communities in the Ubaid period has been emphasized by Oates (1960) and, above all, more recently, by Pournelle (2003, 2007), there is no doubts that, in the third millennium BC agricultural field had probably gained ground when compared to the wetlands.

  3. Civil (1994, p. 121) noted that, often, the two activities include the same operation and many texts record this combined procedure through the expressions “kin u2 sahar-ba”, “sahar u2 sag11” or “u2 sahar”.

  4. In any case, we need to highlight the fact that the interrelationship between irrigation management and political power in Mesopotamia is thought to have been so important that the development of a centralized political dominance must have been accompanied by a comprehensive system of control in relation to water resources (De Maaijer 1998, p. 57; Hruška 1988, p. 27; Renger 1990, pp. 38–39).

  5. For “conveyer”, has been intended a person who hold authority to transfer good or people from one place to another (see also below).

  6. It is worth noting that since earth moving work involved also female millers (presumably when they were not needed for milling) this indicates both how widespread participation in this work was (highlighting its importance) and how this speaks to an effort to achieve administrative efficiencies.

  7. For Idsala and its localization in Umma province, see Steinkeller (2001, p. 72).

  8. The same situation is also recorded in four texts, all dated to ŠS 2/-/- (UTI 5 3024, BPOA 6 1466, SACT 2 9 and MVN 16 903). In these texts the scribe is Ur-dŠara2 son of Šeš-kal-la (Ur-dŠara2/dub-sar/dumu Šeš-kal-la).

  9. It has to be highlighted that this constitutes a tentative reconstruction of a series of events of which we are not exactly aware of. This is because, as it has been already mentioned by Rost (2011, pp. 211–213), and above in this paper, we do not have any idea about the person who is in charge to order an earthwork. For example, also the following scenario is possible: 1. PN3 assigns PN2 to oversee work x in place y; 2. PN3 also orders to PN1 to undertake work x in place y; 3. PN2 writes the tablet for PN1; 4. the work is completed, and PN1 and his workers are stationed elsewhere. But also in this scenario, the ugula is the one in charge of the workers’ team, and the one who seals the tablets keeps being the representative of the administration (which is, in this scenario, PN3).

  10. We also find this situation in other texts either related and not related with earthworks. For a complete list see Alivernini (2019, pp. 203–204).

  11. This theory represents the most probable reconstruction. However, as has been highlighted in the introduction, some of the questions developed in this article are associated with wider aspects of administrative management relating to the Third Dynasty of Ur, whose study falls outside the main scope of this paper.

  12. It is worth noting that there is the possibility of a family relationship among the officials who seal on each other's behalf. We see such family control of administrative offices at times in the Ur III state; and many professions were organized along these lines.

  13. It is worth noting that the fixed nature of certain roles (like the responsible officials who seal texts) versus the temporary nature of other roles (like supervisor) is becoming more apparent in recent scholarship. See, most recently Garfinkle (2015, pp. 149–155).

  14. The same situation is observed in two tablets dated to ŠS 1/-/- (BPOA 6 1272 and BPOA 2 2217): the same earthwork (piling up earth to bring water to the A-ba-gal field), the same ĝir3 (Ur-lugal) and the person who seals (En-kas4), but different ugula (Ur-sig5 and dŠara2-a-mu).

  15. Or even 4 officials, in the case of a tablet sealed by the deputy as defined above. See, for example, BPOA 7 2571 (AS 3/-/-): ugula Ur-dEn-lil2-la2 ĝir3Ur-gišgigir šabra, kišib Šeš-kal-la, seal of Lugal-nig2-lagar-e/dub-sar/dumu Da-da.

  16. For the expression mar-da ri-a, see Civil (1994, p. 93).

  17. See, for example, Fs. Pettinato 214 JH T 100 (ŠS 6/-/-), a tag from a tablets basket which contained the balanced account of removed earth in A-pi4-salki,4 with Ur-e11-e as ĝir3 (r. 1-5: pisan-dub-ba/nig2-kas7 ak sahar zi-ga/A-pi4-salki4/ĝir3 Ur-E11-e). Moreover, we have two complete balanced accounts associated with removed earth (sahar zi-ga) where the name of the ĝir3 officials is recorded: the first text is TIM 6 1 (Š 48/-/-), where, in reverse v, 1’-4’, we can read: nig2 kas7 ak/sahar zi-ga/a-ša3 A-pi4-salki4/ĝir3 Ur-E11-e; the second text is BPOA 2 2546 (AS 8/-/-), where, in reverse 9-12 we can read: šu-nigin2 1565 sar 10 gin2 sahar/zi-ga-am3/diri 1.1 5/6 sar/nig2-kas7 ak kin šuku-ra-ka/ĝir3 Gu-u2-gu-a.

  18. It is worth stressing that, in the balanced account of the ugula, the names of the officials ĝir3 were also recorded: see, for example, Aegyptus 8 264 11 (AS 3/-/) and TCL 5 5674 (AS 3/xii/-).

  19. Another possibility could be that it may have been necessary for someone to actually escort workers to the actual work site, and this is a role that the ĝir3 may have fulfilled.

  20. See also Syracuse 166 (Š 41/iii/-). This does not mean, of course, that the "inspections" were conducted only by ĝir3 officials. As is well known, inspections of workers are very common in the Ur III texts, and many of these inspections do not include any ĝir3.

  21. Or just to escort them (see footnote 19).

  22. See, for example, MVN 16 1337 (Š 42/xiii/-).

  23. See, for example, SAT 2 872 (AS 5/ii/-).

  24. See, for example, SAT 2 782 (AS 4/-/-).

  25. See, for example, BPOA 7 2571 (AS 3/-/-).


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The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for all of their careful, constructive and insightful comments in relation to this work.


This study was written as part of the research funded by the Czech Science Foundation (Grantová Agentura České Republiky) as the project GA ČR 18-01897S “Economic Complexity in the Ancient Near East. Management of Resources and Taxation in the 3rd and 2nd Millennium BC”.

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Alivernini, S. “Let’s move the earth and build a canal!” The management of water infrastructures in a Sumerian city at the end of the third millennium. Water Hist 12, 93–104 (2020).

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