A.1.1.10 – Sesame Cultivation at Irisaĝrig

1. Introduction

Documents from Irisaĝrig provide a very important source for sesame cultivation and its intensification in Babylonia during the Ur III period (21st c. BCE). The month dates of the documents allow a full reconstruction of the annual cultivation cycle of sesame seeds. Furthermore, the preserved sources apparently capture the exact years when foreign experts arrived to participate in the seeding and harvest of sesame plants. Their appearance at the governor’s guesthouse for this purpose and the monitoring of sesame production indicate that the intensification of sesame cultivation was promoted by the state and by the official administration. How successful such agricultural investments were is proven by the fact that sesame became the principal oil seed in Babylonia for at least two millennia to come. The example of Irisaĝrig is thus instructive for the more general issue of agricultural innovations and imports of crops. Other imports of plants were less successful, as in the case of the olive tree plantations (Dossier A.1.2.01), but both success and failure demonstrate vividly how the variety of agricultural plants was increased through imports and the close monitoring of cultivation. A well-organized state offered the best conditions for successful innovations in agricultural production.

2. Sesame Cultivation in the Province of Irisaĝrig

The cultivation of sesame had been introduced in Southern Mesopotamia during the Sargonic period, in the 23rd century BCE (Dossier A.1.1.25, A.1.1.23), but apparently, the needs could not be satisfied by local production. During the Ur III period (documents c. 2060-20), „sesame seeds“ (še-ĝeš-i3, ĝeš-i3) were transported to Babylonia from outer regions of the state, such as Susa[geogr=Susa] and Karaḫar [geogr=Karaḫar] (Waetzoldt 1985: 80; Stol 2009-2011: 401; Maekawa 2016a: 54, 56, 65; Steinkeller; see here the detailed presentation in Dossier A.1.1.01). Cultivation of sesame occurred throughout the Ur III state, and it is especially well documented for the southern provinces of Ĝirsu and Umma (Dossiers A.1.1.02, A.1.1.05). The city of Irisaĝrig was situated further to the north. It lay on the main road from southern Mesopotamia, to the northeast of the important city of Nippur and to the southwest of Dēr, the gateway to Iran.

Evidence for sesame cultivation starts in the year Amar-Suena 7 (2038 BCE), when sesame seeds were transported to Irisaĝrig from a place called Anzagara[geogr=Anzagara], a city located in the province of Irisaĝrig. This happened in months VIII and IX/November and December, thus directly after the harvest, and the transport was guarded and controlled by royal envoys (Nisaba 15/2 0042 r.5-8, AS.07.08.15; Nisaba 15/2 0043 r.6-8 and BDTNS 203125: 8-10, both AS.07.08.25; Nisaba 15/2 0045 r.3-6, AS.07.09.02). The sesame seeds brought from Anzagara were added to the available stock at the governor’s palace at Irisaĝrig. The impressive work of its oil mill is well documented for the period from month VI, Amar-Suena 7 to month II, Amar-Suena 9 (see Dossier A.1.1.12).

Sesame was also cultivated at other places in the province, as attested at a settlement called Diniktum[geogr=Diniktum], where 25 „ploughmen of sesame“ (engar ĝeš-i3[glossary=engar ĝeš-i3]) received 1 gur of barley each as their allocation (Nisaba 15/2 0918 r.i 13, IS.02.00.00). Several Irisaĝrig texts deal with the administration of Diniktum; therefore, its location should be sought in the province of Irisaĝrig. One thus hesitates to identify it with the city of the same name, localized at more than 100 km away in the Diyala/Baghdad area at or near Tell Muhammad (Gentili 2006).

Most references to sesame cultivation in Irisaĝrig do not mention a place name and thus may refer to fields in the vicinity of the capital itself.

3. Disseminating the Expertise of Sesame Cultivation

The preserved documentation from Irisaĝrig partly covers the expenses for the guesthouse of the governor’s palace, where individuals on official missions stayed for a night or for a longer period. Many were travellers on their way to or from the city of Dēr[geogr=Dēr], located to the northeast, the hub for exchange with Iran. Among the many guests, in three cases, people from Dēr came because of the sesame „cultivation“ (uru4-a[glossary=uru4-a]). This happened during the years Amar-Suena 8 and 9, precisely the period when Irisaĝrig was under direct control of the crown (see description of Archive Ur III Irisaĝrig).

During the months VI and VII/September and October of the year Amar-Suena 8, experts, namely a „scribe“ (dub-sar) and two „ploughmen“ (engar), came from Dēr and stayed for two months „for learning“ (zu-zu-de3[glossary=zu]) about sesame „cultivation“ (uru4-a še-ĝeš-i3) at Irisaĝrig (CUSAS 40/2 0148, AS.08.06.00; Nisaba 15/2 0111, AS.08.07.00). This was the time of the harvest, the most crucial period in sesame cultivation; farmers needed to know the precise time to pull up the plants so that the loss of sesame seeds falling to the ground could be minimized (for more on the harvesting process, see below). Heimpel 2013: 202 has noted the ambiguity of the verb zu „to know, learn, inform“, and thus the individuals from Dēr could have „learned“ themselves or „taught“ the cultivation of sesame (see the commentary of Nisaba 15/2 0111). Since Heimpel 2013: 202 had postulated the beginnings of sesame cultivation in the Ur III period, he thought of experts coming from Dēr, the gateway to Iran, to Irisaĝrig to disseminate their knowledge. However, it has now become clear that sesame was already cultivated in Babylonia from the 23rd century BCE onwards (Dossiers A.1.1.23, A.1.1.25), and so this argument has lost its force. Grammatically and lexically, the case remains ambiguous. On a second trip five months later, during the sowing season, the same scribe Aḫubaqar came again from Dēr „to watch“ (igi du8) the sesame cultivation (uru4-a) (Nisaba 15/2 0143 r.i 5-8, AS.09.02.04). Did he check that the process was being performed correctly at Irisaĝrig? Or did he learn about the management and calculation of the seeds and the workforce? Thus, did foreign apprentices come from Dēr to learn sesame cultivation – or did a few experts teach the larger group of workmen on the spot? In my view, this puzzle can hardly be decided, especially since both Dēr and Irisaĝrig were cities controlled directly by the crown, and thus an exchange of experts would be  easily organized. But on a larger scale, it is perhaps less important to reconstruct in which direction the agricultural expert knowledge was disseminated between two cities. More importantly, the Irisaĝrig evidence attests to the deliberate improvement of cultivation methods through the exchange of experts within the royal realm.

4. Sesame Cultivation as Royal Agenda

Sesame production at Irisaĝrig appears in the documents as a largely royal domain. The organisation from which the Irisaĝrig archive originates was headed by the governor Urmes most of the time, and its tablets mainly document the production, distribution and consumption of consumptibles, like foodstuffs or oil, and an important sector of handicrafts. In contrast to the Umma, Ĝirsu or Ur archives, the agricultural sector is hardly present. That sesame production was a royal enterprise is indicated by the presence of royal envoys to levy gangs for work in the sesame fields (Nisaba 15/2 0691 o.1-11; Nisaba 15/2 0727 o.8-12) and the employment of the royal army for the same purpose (Nisaba 15/2 0073 i 21-24, AS.07.00.00; see also JAC 24 56 02), or as a replacement for the craftsmen from the governor’s palace (Nisaba 15/2 0547). Furthermore, the exchange of experts for sesame cultivation happened precisely in the period (from AS.07.02.00 to AS.09.01.00) when the governor Urmes was not in office and the province might have been subject to direct royal control.

5. Periodicity: Seeding and Harvest

The documents concerning „sesame seeds“ (še-ĝeš-i3) cluster around two periods of the year: months II and III/May and June, and months VI to VIII/September to November.

Only one reference exists for the preparation of the fields for sesame cultivation by weeding (Nisaba 15/2 0073, AS.07.00.00).

Sesame for „seeding“ (nuĝun-še3[glossary=nuĝun]) was handled in month II/May (3,090 liters; Nisaba 15/2 0084, AS.08.02.00), the same month when a scribe from Dēr came to „inspect“ (igi du8) the cultivation (Nisaba 15/2 0143 r.i 5-8; see above). Working gangs were levied for sesame in months I, II and III/April to June, and this probably relates to seeding work (Nisaba 15/2 0691 o. 1-11, IS.02.01.04; Nisaba 15/2 0144 r.i 1′-2′, AS.09.02.04?; Nisaba 15/2 0727 o. 8-12, IS.02.03/12; see also Nisaba 15/2 0085, AS.[08?].02.00, „for the sesame seed“).

After the period of „seeding“ (nuĝun) in month II/May (Nisaba 15/2 0084), sacrifices were offered in the sesame field shortly before the harvest (month VI/September; Nisaba 15/2 0442, ŠS.08.06.00); such sacrifices in the fields are known for various crops from other Ur III provinces (Sallaberger 1993: 264-270, 301-204).

The harvest period lasted for one and a half months (48 days, according to Nisaba 15/2 0547, ŠS.09.00.00). Documents concerning the harvest’s workforce date to the second half of month VII/October (JAC 24 56 02 and Nisaba 15/2 0999) and to month VIII/November (Nisaba 15/2 1007) (see Dossier A.1.1.11). These documents probably belong to the end of the harvest period, since they record the number of days harvesting work was performed; the harvest period thus likely began in month VI/September. The beginning of the harvest in month VI/September is also indicated by the presence of the experts from Dēr for that complete month (see above, CUSAS 40/2 0148, AS.08.06.00).

The amount of sesame for „rent“ (apin-la2) was delivered to the storehouses in month VII/October (Nisaba 15/2 0364, ŠS.06.07.00).

In conclusion, the vegetation period of the summer crop sesame started after the seeding in months II-III/May-June and ended before the harvest and storage in months VI-VIII/September-November and thus lasted for circa three to four months. During the years Amar-Suena 8-9, seeds for sowing were handed over in month II/May (Nisaba 15/2 0084, AS.08.02.00); the experts from Dēr stayed for two complete months, months VI-VII/September-October „for learning“ (zu-zu-de3[glossary=zu]) about sesame „cultivation“ (uru4-a[glossary=uru4-a]) (CUSAS 40/2 0148, AS.08.06.00; Nisaba 15/2 0111, AS.08.07.00). This must have been the time of harvest. The scribe from Dēr returned in month II/May of the next year, Amar-Suena 9, probably for the sowing of sesame. In the year Amar-Suena 8, the vegetation period was thus at least three months, and there are no clear Ur III references for shorter periods. Bedigian states that „sesame plants are harvested 75–150 days after sowing, more commonly after 100–110 days“ (Bedigian 2010: 10). With 90+ days, the sesame cultivation at Ur III Irisaĝrig fits exactly.

During the summer months, no rain could be expected in southern Mesopotamia. Before sowing, the first irrigation was able to profit from the high water in the rivers. In the vegetation period, „fast and light irrigation“ was necessary. But since sesame roots do not tolerate waterlogging, it is essential to drain the irrigation water (Bedigian 2010: 293). Unfortunately, no such work is attested in the texts, but the success of sesame cultivation in Babylonia indicates that the ancient ploughmen knew their job. The intensive solar radiation of southern Iraq was essential for the growth of the sesame plants and their yield.

Harvesting sesame starts with pulling up the sesame plants by their roots, preventing the ripe capsules from opening too early and seeds being lost. The harvested sesame plants are then placed „in an upright position to continue ripening until all the capsules have opened“ (Wikipedia, s.v. Sesame, accessed 2020/03/19). This is reflected in the terminology of the Irisaĝrig texts: the men „pulled up“ (lit. „plucked, grapped“; ur4[glossary=ur4]), „bundled“ (tab[glossary=tab]) and „hulled“ (ĝeš ra[glossary=ĝeš ra]) sesame seeds and transported the yield to „the storehouses“ (e2-kišeb3-ba[glossary=e2-kišeb3-ba]) of Irisaĝrig and Anzagara [geogr=Anzagara](Nisaba 15/2 0547; Nisaba 15/2 0552; Nisaba 15/2 0916). See also the „uprooting“ of sesame (bu3.r) in Ĝirsu in the Dossier A.1.1.04 § 4.2).

6. Sesame Cultivation on Domain Land and Fields on Lease

Sesame was cultivated on „domain land“ (gana2-gud[glossary=gana2-gud]; CUSAS 40/2 1761), and sesame seeds were delivered as „rent“ as well (apin-la2[glossary=apin-la2], Nisaba 15/2 0364; Nisaba 15/2 0423). The only field size attested at Irisaĝrig is relatively small with 10.8 ha (Nisaba 15/2 0073 i 21-24, AS.07.00.00). For sesame plots as domain land and tenant land in the provinces of Umma and Ĝirsu, see A.1.1.05 § 1, and A.1.1.03 § 1.

7. Workforce in Sesame Cultivation and Production

JAC 24 56 02 (00.07.17) and parallel texts are key texts for sesame cultivation in the province of Irisaĝrig. They enumerate the ploughmen and workers that pertain to sesame production. The documents include the oil-milling women and their overseers, who are known to have been stationed at Irisaĝrig (see Dossier A.1.1.11).

Number of workers active in the sesame harvest at Irisaĝrig
Nisaba 15/2 0999 JAC 24 56 02 Nisaba 15/2 1007 CUSAS 40/2 1703 Nisaba 15/2 1006
00.07.15 00.07.17 00.08.10 00.08.14 00.08.15
under Ku-elak[individual=Ku-elak]:
„men: ploughmen of sesame“ (ĝuruš engar ĝeš-i3) 15 8 16 7 7
„guards of the governor“ (aga3-us2 ensi2) 14
„men“ (ĝuruš) 90 123 52 52 45
„half-time (men)“ (a2 1/2) 36 27 32 32
„women“ (munus) 10 11 10 13
under Būr-Mama[individual=Būr-Mama]:
„oil milling women“ 27 19 15 15
under Adalal[individual=Adalal]:
„oil milling women“ (geme2 i3-sur-sur) 26 18 18 19
total number of persons
105 244 143 134 131
total women 63 48 43 47
total men 105 181 95 91 84

This series of inspection records from months VII and VIII/October and November relates to the personnel employed in sesame cultivation and supervision. The texts are not dated by year and they might refer to at least two different years, as the differences in numbers suggest, especially the high total of 244 workers in JAC 24 56 02 compared to 105 to 143 workers in the other lists.

The number of „sesame ploughmen“ (engar ĝeš-i3[glossary=engar ĝeš-i3]) was either 7 to 8 or 15 to 16 men. Another 80 to 90 men, partly half-time, worked with the ploughmen during the period of the sesame harvest. Interestingly, the women employed for the milling of sesame oil (geme2 i3-sur-sur[glossary=geme2 i3-sur]) are listed in the same documents (see on them Dossier A.1.1.11), and this indicates that the whole production process of sesame, from cultivation to extraction, was in the hands of one office. This finds parallels in other contemporaneous archives (Dossiers B.XXX).

The workforce of 84 to 181 men employed for the harvest according to these documents implies that sesame cultivation was a large enterprise in the province. Other texts list similar numbers, e. g. 120 men for 48 days (Nisaba 15/2 0547, 5750 days of work; see also Nisaba 15/2 0915: 4,637 days of work; Nisaba 15/2 0552: 736 days of work; Nisaba 15/2 0916: 2682 days of work).

8. Control of Sesame Cultivation

Sesame was a valuable agricultural product controlled by Irisaĝrig’s governor, a brother-in-law of king Šu-Suen. In this regard, the presence of military leaders at Irisaĝrig for the sesame harvest indicates both the work of royal troops in the fields and the need for the control and protection of these fields. A general and three royal envoys stayed for one month (Nisaba 15/2 0247), as did the royal prince Narām-Ea[individual=Narām-Ea] who took over the working gangs (Nisaba 15/2 0112).

Various royal envoys arrived for the sesame in month VII/October, the period of the sesame harvest  (Nisaba 15/2 0174 o.1-4; Nisaba 15/2 0242 r. 3-5: sesame as a royal gift). The end of the busy harvest period is marked by the arrival of two royal envoys for sesame, whereby one oversaw the transport of sesame from Anzagara[geogr=Anzagara] (Nisaba 15/2 0042 r. 1-8), or its storage there and in Irisaĝrig (Nisaba 15/2 0552).

Furthermore, royal envoys arrived „for the custody (en-nu) of sesame seeds“ (še-ĝeš-i3-še3) in months VI and VII/September and October, i.e., during the harvest (Nisaba 15/2 0109, CUSAS 40/2 0403 o.1-3, CUSAS 40/2 0885); others came „for sesame seeds“ after harvest and before seeding, in month XII/March (Nisaba 15/2 0868 r.7-9). Apparently this control and protection was necessary, since indeed, on one occasion, the theft of sesame seeds was recorded (Nisaba 15/2 0528 o.1-9).


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