Front and back of clay tablet with cuneiform inscription, Mesopotamia, 1792-1750 BC. KM 89476
“Speak to Shamash-hazir, thus says Lu-Ninurta: May Shamash keep you in good health! As for the field of Azi'el, it is a permanent field of his wife's father. The king told me, "I(!) gave (the field to him). Why did you give (it) to another?" Return the grain and the field to him, and give him the field of the fullers that he inspected for you. When I have written to you concerning my business, do not treat the matter lightly! Send me a reply to my letter.”
—trans. Tayfun Bilgin
This clay tablet is a letter inscribed with cuneiform script in the Old Babylonian language, which is a dialect of Akkadian. It came from a large administrative archive that has been excavated in the ancient city of Larsa, today located in southern Iraq. The archive dates to the days of the Babylonian king Hammurapi (r. 1792–1750 BC), whose Mesopotamian kingdom centered on Babylon, his capital. Although Hammurapi is celebrated today for his well-known legal code, archives like this one indicate that he also administered a complex bureaucracy.
The Kelsey Museum houses eight administrative letters from this archive, possibly all dating to the reign of Hammurapi (KM 89469–KM 89476), one of which (KM 89475) comes directly from the king. All letters are addressed to Shamash-hazir, head of the cadastre office (registry of real estate) in Larsa, which had been incorporated into the Babylonian state around 1763 BC. Thus, all letters should date to the years following this conquest.
Shamash-hazir was responsible for the distribution and administration of palace land holdings in the Larsa area. Not surprisingly, a great many letters in the Shamash-hazir archive, including the Kelsey tablets, concern assignment of agricultural fields. Vast stretches of land had come into the possession of the palace after Hammurapi’s conquest of southern Mesopotamia, and the state either rented these fields to tenants in exchange for an annual fee or assigned them as rewards to people who provided other services to the palace.
The letter above indicates that problems sometimes arose. After Shamash-hazir assigned a particular field to a new owner, he was instructed to return it to the original owner, Azi’el, who must have complained directly to the palace. The sender, Lu-Ninurta, is an official in Babylon in close contact with the king, and the authoritative tone of the final sentences suggests that he outranks Shamash-hazir.