A.1.1.05 – The Cultivation of Sesame in Ur III Umma

1. Introduction

This dossier gathers core information on the planting of sesame in the Ur III period according to sources from the Umma province. Sesame plots covered up to 7 % of the cultivated domain land, i.e. up to 324 ha, and could have produced ca. 240,000 litres of sesame per season. This domestic production could easily exceed the scale of sesame supplied from regions further east or north like Susa [geogr=Susa]and Karaḫar [geogr=Karaḫar](Dossier A.1.1.01, Dossier A.1.1.03, Dossier A.1.1.06). The sources also document the connection of sesame plots to the irrigation system. 3 to 6 litres of sesame seeds per field served for seeding, relatively small quantities compared to what is attested for Ĝirsu[geogr=Ĝirsu]. Sesame cultivation in Umma [geogr=Umma]was performed by „ploughmen of sesame“ (engar ĝeš-i3), who owed a predetermined quantity of crop yield to the provincial government. However, they could also fulfill the obligation with a corresponding amount of silver. Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau] functioned as manager of sesame in this regard.

2. Quantification of sesame cultivation

2.1. The area of sesame plots in Umma

The temple land in Umma comprised „domain land“ (gana2-gud, ca. 34.9 %), „fallow land“ (buru14 bala, ca. 34.9 %) and „subsistence land to be cultivated“ (šuku du3-du3-a, ca. 30.21 %, Vanderroost 2012-2013: 87-92; Maekawa 1987b: 38 - 39). In contrast to Ĝirsu, the scarce evidence for „leased land“ or „tenant plots“ (gana2 apin-la2, gana2 niĝ2-ĝal2-la) in Umma indicates that this was considered part of the „subsistence land“ (gana2 šuku, Orient 21 2, Šu.43.00.00; Ouyang 2013: 36). The total arable land in Umma amounted to up to 42,075 iku (= 15,147 ha)1Studies Postgate 562 Text E, [AS].[02].[…].[…] in Steinkeller 2017; see the summarizing table 3 in the commentary to AnOr 01 303 as well as Vanderroost 2012-2013: 88 - 89, pace Steinkeller 2013: 358 and Ouyang 2013: 43.

Two land surveys document the distribution of arable land in the province of Umma and register respectively 14,130 to 14,268 iku (5,086.8 to 5,136.48 ha) as cultivated „domain land“ in the year Amar-Suena 2. They also indicate that sesame-cultivated plots covered ca. 6.4 % of the cultivated domain land, i.e. 900 iku (= 324 ha) (Orient 21 1 and Studies Postgate 562 Text E; sesame plots in Ĝirsu covered between 5 % and 6 % of the cultivated domain land, Dossier A.1.1.03). A third text documents the area of arable land in the Umma province as well, though it is unfortunately not dated. It subdivides the arable land into 24,504 iku (= 8,821.44 ha) of domain land and 15,930 iku (= 5,734.8 ha) of „medium quality fields“ (AnOr 01 303 r. 12-13). AnOr 01 303 also specifies that sesame plots covered 7.3 % of the domain land, i.e. 1,800 iku (= 648 ha). Hereafter the surface of domain land covered by the sesame fields corresponds to exactly twice as much as registered in the year Amar-Suena 2. Likewise, the total domain land resembles approximately twice as much as registered in the year Amar-Suena 2 (Orient 21 1 and Studies Postgate 562 Text E; see table 1 below). Hence AnOr 01 303 assesses the whole arable land in Umma, without differentiating between cultivated land and fallow land.

The area of the sesame-cultivated plots in Umma according to three land surveys AnOr 01 303, Orient 21 1 o. i 9 – o. ii 4 and Studies Postgate 562 Text E o. i 8 – 16.
Type of land Domain land Cultivated domain land
AnOr 01 303 o. 2
Orient 21 1 o. i 9 – o. ii 4


Studies Postgate 562 Text E o. i 8 – 16


iku ha % iku ha % iku ha %
sesame plot

(a-ša3 ĝeš-i3-ka[glossary=a-ša3 ĝeš-i3], ki ĝeš-i3-ka[glossary=ki ĝeš-i3])

 1,800 648   7.3 % 900 324 6.4 % 900 324 6.3 %
Total  24,504 8,821.44  100 % 14,130 5,086.8 100 % 14,268 5,136.48 100 %

2.2. Estimation of the annual production of sesame in Umma

Apparently not a single Ur III document offers an area-to-yield ratio for sesame, and therefore we have to rely on ethnographic data. Crop yield of sesame can fluctuate considerably depending on various circumstances in the cultivation: It can range from as low as 120 kg/ha in traditionally farmed sesame to as high as 1100 kg/ha in modern sesame cultivation (Bedigian 2011: 323). If we apply an average crop yield of 500 kg/ha (see Dossier A.1.1.03) to the area of sesame cultivated areas in Umma, we can estimate that the annual production of sesame seeds amounted to ca. 240,000 litres (1 kg = 1,47 litres) (see table 2 below). Compare the estimated annual production of sesame seeds in Ĝirsu of ca. 662,000 to 735,000 litres of sesame (Dossier A.1.1.03).

Estimation of annual sesame production in Umma.
Crop yield rate in traditionally farmed sesame Estimation of crop yield in litres according to the sesame-cultivated area in Umma 
kg/ha litres/ha 324 ha 
400 ca. 588 ca. 190,000
500 ca. 735 ca. 240,000
600 ca. 882 ca. 290,000

In the year Amar-Suena 7, the provincial government calculated the interest to be collected from the sesame fields in the district of Da-Umma[geogr=Da-Umma], indicating their surface. Hereafter the assessed sesame fields covered 360 iku (= 129.6 ha; BDTNS 037032 r. ii 14-22). The text notes this as “leased sesame fields, they are (the pensum) of 60 plough oxen in Da-Umma” (apin-la2 a-ša3 ĝeš-i3-ka[glossary=apin-la2] / gud ĝešapin 60-a-kam / da-ummaki). This results in sesame plots of 6 iku (= 2.16 ha) per each plough team (BDTNS 037032 r. ii 20-22, AS.07.00.00; Vanderroost 2012-2013: 91 fn. 289; 105 fn. 328 and 2008: 134-135).

In the same year Amar-Suena 7, the provincial government also calculated the interest to be collected from the sesame fields of the remaining districts of Umma, i.e. Apisal, Guedina and Mušbiana (MVN 04 002 r. ii 22’-l.ed. i 2). Hereafter their area amounted to 265 1/4 iku (= 95.49 ha, „sesame plots (in the) fields of Apisal, Guedina and Mušbiana“ a-ša3 ĝeš-i3-ka / a-ša3 a-pi4-sal4ki / gu2-eden-na u3 muš-bi-an-na). In this case the text does not mention the number of plough oxen.

Adding the surface of the sesame plots from Da-Umma (360 iku = 129.6 ha, BDTNS 037032 r. ii 14-22) to that of the other districts (265 1/4 iku = 95.49 ha, MVN 04 002 r. ii 22’-l.ed. i 2) we obtain 625 1/4 iku (225.09 ha) as total area of sesame fields in Umma in the year Amar-Suena 7. On the basis of this total area, Vanderroost 2008: 134-135 estimates 46/47 plough oxen for the districts of Guedina[geogr=Guedina], Mušbiana [geogr=Mušbiana] and Apisal [geogr=Apisal]. Added to the 60 plough oxen documented by BDTNS 037032 r. ii 20-22, he estimates a total of 106/107 plough oxen for the cultivation of sesame in Umma in the year Amar-Suena 7 (see also Ouyang 2013: 42). This total area of sesame fields in Umma in the year Amar-Suena 7 smaller (ca. 69.5 %) than the area of sesame plots assessed by the two land surveys of five years before in Amar-Suena 2 (900 iku according to Orient 21 1 and Studies Postgate 562 Text E, see table 1 above and the commentary to AnOr 01 303).

After the sesame harvest in months VI/September-VII/Oktober, sesame fields in Umma were used for the cultivation of barley and emmer during the winter months. The provincial administration kept records of the barley/emmer yield on sesame fields in specific accounts („barley on sesame plots“ še a-ša3 ĝeš-i3-ka[glossary=a-ša3 ĝeš-i3-ka], SAT 2 0695 r. i 9-16, AS.02.00.00; SAT 2 0647, AS.01.03.00; MVN 04 002, r. ii 22’-l.ed. i 2 AS.07.00.00).

3. The cultivation of sesame: sowing and irrigation

The documents concerning „sesame seeds“ (še-ĝeš-i3[glossary=še-ĝeš-i3-k]) for „sowing“ (nuĝun-še3[glossary=nuĝun]) do not register the month name in the date formula (SAT 2 0208, Šu.39.00.00; MVN 16 1479, AS.05.00.00; SAT 3 1187, ŠS.01.00.00). A delivery of sesame seeds and dates to the Kamari village could also pertain to the sowing process, because it is dated in month II/May (JMEOS 12 42 3493, […].02.00).

The quantity of seed attested is very small compared to Ĝirsu: a total of 3 to 6 litres for each field. Two field names are attested (MVN 16 1479, Aĝeštin field; SAT 3 1187, Ganaurguka field); in Ĝirsu 300 to 1,800 litres sesame seeds were used per field, see Dossier A.1.1.02). 60 litres of sesame seeds for sowing occur without mention of a specific field (SAT 2 0208). No field size is attested and therefore we cannot calculate or estimate any sowing rate.

Sesame plots were intentionally flooded. A workforce was deployed „at water“ to „flood“ or „to leach“ the sesame plot of the Ninurra field2„20 men for 2 days stationed at the water: sesame plots flooded; Ninurra field“ 20 ĝuruš u4 2-še3 / a-da gub-ba / ki ĝeš-i3 a de2-a[glossary=ki ĝeš-i3 a de2] / a-ša3 dnin-ur4-ra, BPOA 7 2472 o.3 – r.1 AS.03.00.00; „12 men for 5 days, this work 60 (work-)days: stationed at the water (at the) sesame plot; Ninurra field; sealed receipt of Lugalemaḫe“ 12 ĝuruš u4 5-še3 / a2-bi u4 60 / ki ĝeš-i3 a-da gub-ba / a-ša3 dnin-ur4-ra / kišeb3 lugal-e2-maḫ-e BIN 05 272 r. iii 4′-8′ AS.03.00.00. Since sesame needs to be sown in wet ground, the intentional flooding of the sesame plot in the Ninurra field could also pertain to the sowing process, despite the fact that these two records do not mention a specific month date.

4. The management of sesame cultivation: the close connection between sesame and silver

The cultivation of sesame in Umma was tied to obligations toward the provincial government that were due in form of a predetermined quantity of products and as corvée service (bala) (Ouyang 2013: 32, 37; Sharlach 2004: 16). Both obligations could also be met with the corresponding amount of silver (Ouyang 2013). The provincial government supervised it by means of drawing up annual balanced accounts of production and expenditures (Ouyang 2013: 38 - 40).

Sesame was also paid to the provincial administration as an obligation termed niĝ2-sur[glossary=niĝ2-sur] “output”, which usually corresponded to exactly one fifth of the total amount of the product3“output of the ploughmen of sesame” niĝ2-sur engar ĝeš-i3[glossary=niĝ2-sur engar ĝeš-i3], “output for rent” niĝ2-sur a2[glossary=niĝ2-sur a2]MVN 01 208, […].00.00, unkn. prov.. Besides sesame, this „output“ was often applied to deliveries of fish and onions, see Focke 2015a: 382 fn. 3780 who refers to niĝ2-sur as a fee – „Abgabe“ – following Englund 1990: 143 fn. 455 and cites further literature. A receipt of sesame by a certain Ur-Sulpae in Umma mentions the „output of the forest“ and specifies that „in five (litres) of it, there is one (litre of) oil“. This passage could refer to a yield rate of 20 %vol in the production of sesame oil, although the role of the „forest“ remains unclear in this regard. Unfortunately the tablet is only available in transliteration and no picture is available to verify the relevant passage: collation is therefore necessary4„[…] of sesame: output of the forest; in five (litres) of it, there is one (litre) oil” […] še-ĝeš-i3-ka gur / niĝ2-sur ter-ra / 5-ba i3 1-am3 i3-ĝal2 MVN 16 0656, ŠS.02.00.00.

In the year Šulgi 47 „ploughmen of sesame“ (engar ĝeš-i3[glossary=engar ĝeš-i3]) and various individuals provided 3,310 litres of sesame to Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau] according to the balanced account on his activity. In the section of the expenditures (r. 1′ -12′), about 30 % of the whole credit is represented by 130.55 g of silver as an equivalent of 940 litres of sesame (r. 5′ -6′): this silver was then being credited to the account of the governor’s official Dadaga (UCP 9/2/1 078, Šu.47.00.00). According to a parallel source, Ur-Bau delivered this amount of silver to the provincial administration as „repaid arrears of the ploughmen of sesame“ (la2-ni su-ga engar ĝeš-i3-ka-ke4-neSantag 6 078, Šu.47.00.00). Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau] also provided the government’s official Lukala with silver “to buy sesame” (še-ĝeš-i3 sa10-sa10-de3), silver then to be set on the account of the merchants (a-gu3 dam-gara3-ne ĝa2-ĝa2-dam) (AAICAB 1/2 Ashm. 1971-393 r. 1-3, AS.03.00.00).

The following table summarizes the evidence of the „ploughmen of sesame“ (engar ĝeš-i3) (or their overseer for them) paying silver as repaid arrears (la2-ni su-ga) of a predetermined quantity of sesame or in lieu of their corvée duty toward the government (a2 bala-a). One text documents instead the payment of silver by Pada, very likely a merchant, from repaid arrears of sesame oil to a certain Lugalizim, who likely functioned as underling of the official tax collector in Umma (SAT 2 0383, see Ouyang 2013: 53-54 fn. 93).

Silver payments to the provincial administration from the „ploughmen of sesame“, their overseer or a merchant.
Silver Correspondent Quantity of Sesame in Litres From To Description Date Text
in shekels in grams
5 41.7 Pada (a merchant ?) Lugalizim scribe and temple administrator, son of Lugalemaḫe repaid arrears from sesame oil

la2-ni i3-ĝeš-ka-ta su-ga

Šu.44.00.00 SAT 2 0383
24 200 Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau] Dadaga repaid arrears of sesame

la2-ni su-ga ĝeš-i3-ka

Šu.44.06.00 Vicino Oriente 8/1 065
27 225 Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau] repaid arrears of the ploughmen of sesame

la2-ni su-ga engar ĝeš-i3

Šu.44.00.00 AAICAB 1/4 Bod. S 359
15 2/3 130.5 940 Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau ] repaid arrears of the ploughmen of sesame

la2-ni su-ga engar ĝeš-i3-ka-ke4-ne

Šu.47.00.00 Santag 6 078; UCP 9/2/1 078 r. 5′-6′
69 2/3 580.5 Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau ] repaid arrears of the ploughmen of sesame

la2-ni su-ga engar ĝeš-i3-ka-ke4-ne

Šu.46.01.00 Princeton 1 559
10 83 „ploughmen of sesame“ Gududu (in lieu of) workload of the corvée duty

a2 bala-a

ŠS.07.12.00 BCT 2 078
10 83 they are ploughmen of sesame (…) repaid arrears (in lieu of) workload of the corvée duty

engar ĝeš-i3-ka-me⸣-eš2 (…) la2-ni su-ga a2 bala-a

ŠS.08.00.00 Nisaba 26 002 o. ii 18, iii 7
10 83 „ploughmen of sesame“  

(in lieu of) workload of the corvée duty

a2 bala-a

ŠS.09.11.00 TJAMC 57 29
10 83 Niĝgenazu (a ploughmen of sesame according to TCL 5 6038 r. iii 1, 16) repaid arrears of the ploughmen of sesame

la2-ni su-ga engar ĝeš-i3-ka-ke4-ne

ŠS.09.12.00 TJAMC 55 26
80 666.6 Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau ] Governor (ensi2) as rent of fishermen and ploughmen of sesame

a2 šukud2 u3 engar ĝeš-i3

AS.08.00.00 SNAT 407
10 83 not preserved they are ploughmen of sesame (…) repaid arrears (in lieu of) workload of the corvée duty

engar ĝeš-i3-ka-me⸣-eš2 (…) la2-ni su-ga a2 bala-a

[…].[…].[…] Nisaba 26 007 o. ii 16, iii 6

This table illustrates that silver related to sesame was paid to the provincial administration either by the „ploughmen of sesame“ themselves or by Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau ]. Despite the fact that neither of these sources mention a patronymic or a professional title, we assume that this is the same individual as Ur-Bau scribe and son of Da’aga as well as overseer of the „ploughmen of sesame“ and of the fishermen.

Evidently, both silver and sesame were available to the „ploughmen of sesame“ and their overseer for fulfilling their obligations to the provincial government. Thus, silver circulated within various social levels and sesame cultivation could also be used in the non-institutional sector for the direct benefit of the individuals themselves (see also Dossier A.1.1.03(šuku)). The question of how „ploughmen of sesame“ or their overseer had access to silver can be indirectly answered by looking at the balanced accounts on the activity of merchants in Umma.

In the Ur III kingdom the merchants played, on the one hand, an intermediate role between the state and the individuals or households engaged in the production of goods to ensure their flow into royal hands. On the other hand, they engaged in long distance trade to supply the state with raw materials not available in Mesopotamia. Lastly, the state also sometimes used the merchants to collect obligations owed to the crown (Garfinkle 2021: 75-76). In Umma, the merchants provided the provincial administration with various products, among them foodstuffs, such as oil, fats, fruits, vegetables, and others, which all had local origins. They acquired them from their local producers either with silver or by other means of payment. These local producers could either have enjoyed a surplus after delivering their quota to the government, or they undertook their independent, individual production on the margins outside of the institutional framework. When the merchants made purchases with silver in Umma, their transactions disbursed silver to the producers or their overseer, who could then fulfill their obligations to the government (Ouyang 2013: 74-76, 133-134, 143, 156 with further literature).

In the case of sesame seeds, there is no direct attestation of sesame sales by the ploughmen or their overseer to the merchants. Nevertheless, as seen above, silver was entrusted to the merchants by the provincial administration „to buy sesame“ (še-ĝeš-i3 sa10-sa10-de3, AAICAB 1/2 Ashm. 1971-393 r. 1-3, AS.03.00.00). Furthermore, almost all attestations of the price of sesame oil are documented in the balanced accounts on the activity of the Umma merchants (Dossier A.1.1.09). In particular, sesame oil occurs in the expenditure section of the accounts („it is expended out of it“ ša3-bi-tazi-ga-am3), i.e., the merchants used the resources entrusted to them (very often silver) to buy sesame oil and deliver it to the provincial administration. According to Ouyang 2013: 123, 133-134, 143 they could have acquired sesame oil from local producers, although there is no direct evidence of these transactions in the Umma administrative sources. As illustrated by table 3 above, in one case a certain Pada, possibly a merchant, paid silver to the provincial administration „from the arrears of sesame oil“ (la2-ni i3-ĝeš-ka-ta su-ga, SAT 2 0383, Šu.44.00.00). In many cases, the Umma merchants handed over the sesame oil to Ur-Sulpae [individual=Ur-Sulpae ] during the reign of Amar-Suena. Moreover, Ur-Bau [individual=Ur-Bau ] delivered up to 2,280 litres of sesame seeds to Ur-Sulpae [individual=Ur-Sulpae ] as rent for ploughmen (a2 engar); no specific time frame is attested (as rent for ploughmen: Nisaba 09 191, AS.09.00.00; UTI 3 2108, ŠS.01.00.00; BPOA 1 1087, ŠS.02.00.00; without specification: Princeton 1 275, AS.02.00.00).

5. „Ploughmen of Sesame“

Field work in the sesame plots of Umma was carried out by „ploughmen of sesame“ (engar ĝeš-i3), whereas in Ĝirsu they were called “men of sesame” lu2 ĝeš i3[glossary=lu2 ĝeš i3] (Dossier A.1.1.04 § 5). Besides the work on sesame fields, they could be deployed in canal maintenance work (Syracuse 180, Šu.46.00.00) or ploughmen could occasionally help out in the sesame fields and return back to their original tasks (“ploughmen returned from the sesame fields” engar ĝeš-i3-ka-ta gur-ra[glossary=engar ĝeš-i3], MCS 3 89 BM 111772, Šu.47.00.00; BPOA 6 0897, AS.01.00.00).


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