Mesopotamian Trade & Indications of Society

This section of the Wiki will discuss what items were traded, with who, and why. It is not only important to understand what resources the Mesopotamians believed to be worthy of trade, but the reasons they needed them.

Nature of Trade

Commercial activity in ancient Mesopotamia is hard to define because of the ambiguity of the exact nature of the state. Most theories label the government of Mesopotamia as a ‘socialist’ state, which maintained control over many aspects of commercial trade (Foster 31). However, no matter the extent of state involvement, materials still moved in, out, and around Mesopotamia.

The purpose of trade in Mesopotamia was to 1) acquire goods not available in the region, and 2) to make money (Foster 31). Though the purpose of trade never faltered, the way in which trading was accomplished did.The development of complex trade networks and foreign relations most likely developed as a result of the lack of raw resources within the Mesopotamian territory (Oates 407). An important thing to note is that the materials imported to the area were not necessary to life, but more along the lines of raw materials brought in to manufacture luxury goods. The presence of these materials is indicative of an elite class that desired to reinforce their power by acquiring luxury items (Ibid).

Major political and social change in Mesopotamia affected trade. When power changed hands, commercial activity also fluctuated. First, the Uruk state monopolized commercial activities, which was then replaced in the Early Dynastic period by competing city-states. The area goes through several cycles of centralization and subsequent decentralization over most of its history (Edens 119). Another type of change in trade occurred with the change

Trade routes. Source: Penn Museum website (click image)

in materials traded. Edens outlines two ways in which this change is made: a luxury item either appears or disappears in the system, or a luxury item shifts to become a necessary good (123). Read below about copper to get an idea of what this shift means.

It is important to note that trade occurred with neighbors of Mesopotamia, but also between the city-states within the recognized area. It is easy for one to think of Mesopotamia as a unified entity, when in fact it was an area of similar cultures and organizations that several millennia later can be labeled as such (Crawford 233). In fact, individual areas specialized in particular items or trade skills: "
...for instance Tello seems to have had a thriving fish trade and a line in perfumed ointments, while Sippar is men-tioned as specializing in paint (Lambert I953; LeemansI 960: 68)” (Crawford 233).

Justin C's Section goes in to great detail on inter-city and foreign trade. Click on the link to read more about the creation of trade outposts, changes in trade networks, urbanization and trade, etc.

Because Mesopotamian trade was so extensive and so long ago, it is hard to get an accurate grasp on exactly what was happening thousands of years ago.
Crawford calls Mesopotamian trade objects ‘invisible exports’ because most of the items Mesopotamia traded were perishable in nature, and thus have not survived through the millennia for archaeological study (233). Thus, we only know about items that were traded that were 1) recorded, and 2) still exist. It is very difficult to determine how much of a food item was traded because perhaps only a few remnants remain; the same is true of all the fiber goods that were traded, as they would have disintegrated by now.

While it is difficult to track the movement of goods, tracing the movement of vehicles is much easier. Ship manifests are well-documented from Mesopotamia (Foster 38). An example of a single shipment includes items such as “jars of oil, animal hides, brewing ingredients, legumes, spices, sea fish, fatted animals, barley, and flour, under the charge of a slave or a servant of an untitled person” (Ibid).

You Tube Series

These three (3) videos are short Discover Education channel excerpts, which talk about ancient trade from the perspective of a young girl.

Mineral Resources, Semi-Precious Stones, & Metals

Mesopotamia imported many raw items such as stones and metals for manufacture in to luxury items. A hand-full of these items include lapis lazuli, gold, copper, tin, carnelian, and chlorite. Many of these items were obtained from east of Mesopotamia, in Iran and Indus.

Trade between Iran and Mesopotamia in the third and fourth millennia was extensive, due in part to Mesopotamia’s lack of mineral resources; resources which Iran had in abundance. Iran has such resources as chlorite, marble, obsidian, turquoise, alabaster, and carnelian (Beale 134). Gold and silver could be found in large quantities in Iran; Mesopotamia most likely obtained their gold and silver from a location in the Taurus mountains, the closest location with the most dense amount of raw material (T.F. Potts 392).Tin most likely came from the east, but it is hard to find documented proof of its exact nature and location (T.F. Potts 391).

Through many periods in Mesopotamian history, trade of semi-precious stones rose and importance, as well as diminished. One very impormine_path.jpgtant material that has been extensively researched and documented is the presence of lapis lazuli in ancient Mesopotamia. This is one of the first 'luxury goods' items that can be found in Mesopotamia, arriving during the Late Ubaid period (Hermann pg. 21). According to Hermann's article, lapis lazuli first appears in the tomb of Gawra X (Ibid). The extraordinary thing about this presence of lapis lazuli is that the mines that the raw material most likely originated from were fifteen hundred miles away, in the mines at Badakhshan (Ibid). Take a look at the Google Earth image: the red line denotes the straightest path from the mines to Mesopotamia; it is not a short distance!
Many artifacts have been discovered that are made of lapis lazuli, including necklaces, beads,and cylinder seals. The cylinder seals are interesting in that many of them contain a geometric pattern,"based on wavy lines, festoons, repeating V's and a trellis motif are usually drawn with two parallel lines joined by hatching although designs drawn with single lines also occur” (Herrmann 34). Click on this link to read about the Royal Cemetaries

Initially, only small amounts of copper were being imported in to Mesopotamia.
Akkadian cylinder seal from Kish
However, by the 2nd millennia BC, over eighteen metric tons were being brought in from the Gulf (Edens 125). Copper was used to make tools, vessels, and various artistic objects. It is a good example of a material that was initially a luxury, which eventually changed in to a good necessary to everyday life. At first, copper was used to create luxury goods for the elite citizens; but, as copper came in to Mesopotamia in greater amounts, it slowly became an industrial metal that replaced stone and came to be important to every person in daily life (Ibid).

Several varieties of dark stone were used to make cylinder seals, vessels, sculptures, and other items. Some of these stones include schist, serpentine, olivine-gabbro, diorite, and dolerite (Potts 385). Researchers may make educated guesses about where the raw material was obtained during the early Mesopotamian periods; lack of textual evidence does not give any specific locations. However, evidence has been found for a little later in history: “Manisthushtu (c. 2269-2255 BC) …relates how, after defeating the Elamites of Ansham and Sherihum, … ‘crossed the Lower Sea (Arabian Gulf)’ and ‘mined their dark stones’, which he then shipped back to Agade and made into statues” (T. F. Potts 386).



Salt was used for a variety of things in ancient Mesopotamia. It was used to cure animal hides, to separate gold from silver in metallurgy, the preservation of various foods including fish, and the preservation of dead bodies (D. Potts 231-2).

One unique discovery regarding the use of salt is in medicinal form. Several different researchers have found evidence of ancient Mesopotamians using salt in prescriptions (Ur III period), as well as salt being found in what would be a modern equivalent of a pharmacy in Babylonia and Assyria (D. Potts 230). Salt was also used in ritual healing and for meals prepared for the gods (Ibid).

It was not necessary to import salt, as Mesopotamia was full of it. Because of its geographical location near tectonic activity, salt plugs have been pushed up, what texts from the Ur period call “the salt hill field” (D. Potts 235). Salt was also available, in a less pure form, if taken directly from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers or from marshes (Ibid). Looking at the satellite image on the right, it is easy to see how so much salt would be available in the lush areas surrounding the rivers. Since the amount of salt produced exceeded the amount needed for local consumption, ancient tribes traded the surplus salt for “grain, butter, wool, and other com-modities” (D. Potts 241). However, because so much salt existed in and around Mesopotamia, much of the surplus trade was completed domestically, and was not a major export.


This section will only briefly touch on the importance of studying not only trade goods, but the containers they came in.

Roberta Tomber describes research in India that found evidence of Mesopotamian ‘torpedo jars,’ which were previously thought to be Roman amphorae (972). The vessels were similar in design (thus the confusion), however the torpedo jars do not have the distinctive handles that amphorae do. Several types of jars and other containers have been found in many parts of India, indicating an extensive export of Mesopotamian goods. Torpedo jars were found, but also “turquoise alkaline glazed ware” (Tomber 973).

The fantastic aspect of studying these vessels is being able to determine what they held based on their construction. Because the jars were lined with bitumen as an acting sealant, it can then be supposed that the torpedo jars were made specifically to hold liquid (Tomber 974). Evidence in both Mesopotamia and India suggests that the torpedo jars were used to hold wine (Ibid). Understanding why a vessel was made the way it was leads to the discovery of what might have been stored in the container, and thus revealing more about a particular society.
For more information about other containers, visit Megan's section


A consensus on the very nature of trade in ancient Mesopotamia has not quite been reached. However, archaeologists and researchers have been able to determine many of the items that were traded, as well as with whom. One of the most important things to remember from this section is that raw materials were being imported primarily for use by elite citizens for luxury items; this was not a trade based on exchanging goods needed for survival. A large variety of items were traded, the nature of the goods being traded determined by the political and social nature of the time.

Module Assignments:

Topic Interest Paragraph:
So far our group has discussed researching the influence of trade on ancient Mesopotamia. I would like to focus on
either specific material goods (like lapis luzuli and other natural resources) or business arrangements and economic
models. Mesopotamia was geographically near many other places and so its economic interaction with other cultures
was significant to the development of the civilization. We have not yet decided on topics; hopefully my section will
focus in one of these areas.

Module 10 & 11 Assignment

Through many periods in Mesopotamian history, trade of semi-precious stones rose and importance, as well as diminished. One very important material that has been extensively researched and documented is the presence of lapis lazuli in ancient Mesopotamia. This is one of the first 'luxury goods' items that can be found in Mesopotamia, arriving during the Late Ubaid period (Hermann pg. 21). According to Hermann's article, lapis lazuli first appears in the tomb of Gawra X (Ibid). The extraordinary thing about this presence of lapis lazuli is that the mines that the raw material most likely originated from were fifteen hundred miles away, in
the mines at Badakhshan (Ibid). Many artifacts have been discovered that are made of lapis lazuli, including necklaces, beads,and cylinder seals.
Below is an image of a lapis lazuli cylinder seal with its impression:
Lapis lazuli necklace; Early Dynastic period

Akkadian cylinder seal from Kish

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art Website

Hermann, Georgina. (1968). Lapis lazuli: the early phases of its trade. Anthropological Literature, vol. 30.

Full Text Articles
Political Economy in Early Mesopotamian States by Norman Yoffee
by H.E.W. Crawford
This article discusses the various exported items of ancient Mesopotamia. Crawford labels these items 'invisible exports' because of their perishable nature; the containers or record of the trade may exist, but archaeologists end up researching 'invisible' objects from long ago. A major focus of this article is on the trade and importance of fish- the types and quantities traded, as well as the ways in which the fish might have been prepared for consumption. Other items that Crawford discusses are cereal grains, wool, and leather. This article gracefully outlines how difficult it is for researchers to make concrete discoveries when the items they are analyzing are ‘invisble.’

Reconstructing the World of Ancient Mesopotamia by Richard L. Zettler
Summary: This article contains a comprehensive discussion of ancient Mesopotamia and how ideas about the civilization have changed over time. The author looks at three research projects which have attempted to reach a better understanding of the 'real' Mesopotamia; a focus on the combination of archaeology and history is also discussed. Readers will not only gain a basic sense of Mesopotamia, but an understanding of how perception has changed through research and archaeological findings.
JSTOR Article (Wiki assignment for 10/16/09)
First sentence: "The floodplains along the Nile constitute an important but as yet little utilized series of laboratories for comparative study of the origins and interaction of ancient civilization."
Source: “Kerma: The Rise of an African Civilization,” Bruce G. Trigger, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1. (1976), pp. 1-21.

Google Earth Image: Ur Temple


Beale, Thomas W. (1973). Early Trade in Highland Iran: A View from a Source Area. World Archaeology, 5 (2), 133-148.
Crawford, H. E. W. (1973). Mesopotamia’s Invisible Exports in the Third Millennium B.C. World Archaeology, 5 (2), 232-41.
Edens, Christopher (1992). Dynamics of Trade in the Ancient Mesopotamian "World System." American Anthropologist, 94 (1), 118-139.
Foster, Benjamin R. (1977). Commercial Activity in Sargonic Mesopotamia. Iraq, 31 (1), 31-43.
Herrmann, Georgina (1968). Lapis Lazuli: The Early Phases of its Trade. Iraq, 30 (1), 21-57.
Muhly, James David. The Copper Ox-hide Ingots and the Bronze Age Metals Trade. Iraq, 39 (1), 73-82.
Oates, Joan (1993). Trade and power in the fifth and fourth millennia BC: new evidence from northern Mesopotamia. World Archaeology, 24 (3), 403-22.
Potts, Daniel (1984). On Salt and Salt Gathering in Ancient Mesopotamia. Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 27 (3), 225-71.
Potts, T. F. (1993). Patterns of Trade in Third-Millennium BC Mesopotamia and Iran. World Archaeology, 24 (3), 379-402.
Tomber, Roberta (2007). Rome and Mesopotamia: Importers into India in the First Millennium AD. Antiquity, 81 (314), 972-988.