At the Akkadian Cleaners.

Noor Al-Samarrai at Atlas Obscura describes “an Akkadian cuneiform text from ancient Ur […], dubbed ‘At the Cleaners’ by scholars, dating back to 1600 B.C. or so”:

The text is a take on the classic, “the customer knows best” trope, says Martha Roth, editor in charge of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, except that in this case the client isn’t just making idle demands—he really does know how the task is done. But that doesn’t make him any less of a pest. He gives the cleaner excessively detailed instructions, down to the water that should be used to wash his clothes: “come upstream of the city, in the environs of the city—let me show you a washing-place,” and the wind he should use to dry them, specifically from the east, and the specific types of wood and stones that the cleaner should use to felt and flatten the clothes to restore them to their original fit. The text illustrates that a Mesopotamian cleaner’s tasks went beyond removing dirt, oil, and other detritus of everyday life. He was a full-service shop, charged with repairing clothing and restoring it to its original condition (size, shape, tightness of warp and weft). The process involved a variety of specialized implements, and a great deal of care was taken to ensure the job was done right.

The cleaner is frustrated by the customer’s haranguing and lowball offer for his services (a single measure of barley). “He says, ‘No way! How do you have the nerve to talk like that, nobody could manage it—I’ll show you a washing place and you can do it yourself if you think you know the work so well,’” Roth says. […]

Roth says that the text was likely used to educate scribes. The text is modeled after dialogues and riddles that would have been classics at that time. The garment the cleaner is tasked with washing is a luxury item, with many features that require special treatment, such as fringes, complex weaving, and embroidered adornments. These details offer the opportunity to bring in a technical vocabulary, as well as grammatical quirks. Like the school exercise in which children have to instruct an alien in how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in excruciating detail, this basic task is used to illustrate a great deal about many aspects of the culture at once—and is entertaining to boot. Educational texts like these actually serve the same purpose for lexicographers such as Roth over 3,000 years later.

Thank goodness for scribal education!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    Nah. It’s obviously genuine. Fact is, you just can’t get proper service these days, and the prices are extortionate.
    Things have been going to hell in a handbasket since the Third Dynasty of Ur.
    I blame those Elamites. Shifty bunch.

  2. Stu Clayton says:

    Summary: a customer tries to take the cleaner to the cleaners. The Herr/Knecht relationboat reaches its climax.

  3. AJP Crown says:

    “come upstream of the city, in the environs of the city—let me show you a washing-place,”
    This attitude is far from being a pest, but does it mean in this case everyone downstream in the city was drinking from washing suds? Maybe there weren’t enough people for it to matter. When the Victorian philanthropist Titus Salt located his textile mill and the necessary housing at Saltaire near Bradford in Yorkshire, his first concern was for the town’s drinking water, but as far as I know this hadn’t been much of an issue in the intervening millennium & a half.

    Somewhat related, two short excerpts of Andrew Scott (he’s the priest in Fleabag and Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes) on stage in Hamlet, in which he & the director wanted to make the language accessible to any teenager. Esp. in the first, he does a brilliant job.
    https://twitter.com/bbctwo/status/978934807479635968?lang=en
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VyHy06A5UjE

  4. Yes, he’s very good. And he doesn’t run the lines into each other like too many actors eager to make it “sound natural,” which always makes me want to throw things.

  5. Michael Eochaidh says:

    Of course they were drinking washing suds. The text is from Ur, which is in the south close to where the Euphrates meets the Tigris and empties into the Persian Gulf. People in plenty of cities and villages upstream of Ur did all kinds of things in the Euphrates.

    It’d be interesting to see how polluted the Tigris and Euphrates actually were back in the day, although I’m not sure how you’d actually do that. Core samples from dried-up canals and places where the river has moved away? I’d bet Victorian-era pollution was worse, though.

  6. I imagine that the Upstream Cleaners Syndicate promoted sudsy water as a health-enhancing product. They probably sold it bottled to Elamites.

  7. AJP Crown says:

    The level of the Gulf was higher by 2,5 metres back then. It was all marshy round Ur (the current marsh-Arab marshes are further North).

  8. Seeing Moriarty play Hamlet reminds me of watching My Dinner with Andre and realizing that what I’d assumed was an acting style developed specifically for the role of Vizzini was really just how Wallace Shawn acts. It certainly makes for a refreshing change from the Grand Style of Shakespearean acting (which I complained about in a Metafilter thread about the soliloquy a while ago); at some points it really does sound like the words have just popped into his head, which is no mean feat when you’re delivering the best-known speech in the language. I wonder though if the hesitant singsong, the splashy hand gestures and the other mannerisms wouldn’t get a bit wearisome over the course of a whole performance.

  9. I wonder though if the hesitant singsong, the splashy hand gestures and the other mannerisms wouldn’t get a bit wearisome over the course of a whole performance.

    Yes, I wondered the same thing, but in the short excerpt it’s certainly effective. Excellent point about Shawn.

  10. It kind of ruined My Dinner with Andre for me since I couldn’t stop mentally peppering the dialogue with “Inconceivable!” and “But first, we drink — I from my cup, and you from yours”.

  11. AJP Crown says:

    Good Metafilter. I wondered the same thing. There’s a whole nother thing going on with those gestures.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    The level of the Gulf was higher by 2,5 metres back then.

    Of course not; the sea has risen, most of that within the last 100 years. Instead, the Euphrates and the Tigris have brought so much mud in that the coastline has moved far out.

  13. Shawn does say “inconceivable” once in My Dinner With Andre.

  14. AJP Crown says:

    Of course not; the sea has risen, most of that within the last 100 years.

    Hey, I know nothing. But from Harriet Crawford’s essay Ur: City of the Moon it’s downloadable:

    It is now apparent, with the advantages provided by satellite photo-graphs and modern boring equipment, that its surroundings were very different in the past. At the time the settlement was founded, in the Ubaid period from the late sixth to late fifh millenna BC, the level of the Persian Gulf was rising, and by the Uruk period a 1,000 years or so later, the water was 2.5 metres above today’s level with the coastline reaching as far as Ur itself, creating new marshes and a new delta. Pournelle, an expert in the interpretation of satellite photographs, describes these early settlements like Ur as ‘islands embedded in a marshy plain, situated on the borders and in the heart of vast deltaic marshlands … Their waterways served less as irrigation canals than as transport routes.’ Lofus, writing in 1857, states that even then, ‘During inundation [Ur] was completely surrounded by water’, and Mallowan in the 1920s observed the same phenomenon.

    From an architectural pov there’s some interesting & very detailed recording of related heights of the Ziggurat terraces at Ur; some intended from the outset, presumably, and then others adjusted because of changing water levels. Crawford cites it, The Topography of the Temenos at Ur. Martin Gruber, 2018. I can’t link, unfortunately.

  15. John Cowan says:

    The Pournelle mentioned, by the way, is the daughter of the well-known sf writer and palaeoconservative Jerry Pournelle. In between trips to the Ur region, she wrote a sequel to Pournelle’s novels The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand aka The Moat around Murcheson’s Eye, written with Larry Niven. The sequel is called Outies and it reveals Jerry Pournelle’s Second Empire from below, including showing her father’s aristocrat heroes as entitled assholes. ObHat: the lingua franca of migrant laborers (from planet to planet, that is) is revealed to be Tok Pisin. There are of course Moties in the new book, whose civilization strikingly resembles that of Ur….

  16. David Marjanović says:

    t is now apparent, with the advantages provided by satellite photo-graphs and modern boring equipment, that its surroundings were very different in the past. At the time the settlement was founded, in the Ubaid period from the late sixth to late fifh millenna BC, the level of the Persian Gulf was rising, and by the Uruk period a 1,000 years or so later, […] with the coastline reaching as far as Ur itself, creating new marshes and a new delta.

    This part I have no quarrel with. The inland ice was only gone from northern Sweden by around 5500 BC and from Nunavik (northern Quebec) around 4500 BC, so the sea must have risen until then. But it has not exceeded today’s level. Instead, the mentioned new delta has been growing all this time – horizontally more than vertically.

  17. John Cowan says:

    I’m pretty sure that I first saw Shawn in MDWA the play, so when his style there reappears, I automatically think of it as his rather than the part’s; another notable instance is his recurring role as the Grand Negus of Ferenginar.

    Eli Wallace “Wallach” Shawn would be the greatest character actor who ever lived if only he existed.

  18. AJP Crown says:

    Was there a play? Did they adapt the dialogue every night? In Wikip. it says “They agreed that it should be filmed rather than produced as a play.” And incidentally if you google ‘Shawn,’ you get NO refs to Wm or Wally, nothing about Shawn the Sheep, just pics of a Canadian heartthrob, grumble grumble, and a clown.

  19. The sheep is „Shaun“, so that doesn’t surprise me.

  20. January First-of-May says:

    Instead, the Euphrates and the Tigris have brought so much mud in that the coastline has moved far out.

    Far enough, in fact, that the two rivers have merged into a single channel (Shatt-el-Arab) before even reaching the sea.

    I wonder if anyone ever found an ancient Mesopotamian prediction of something similar… would they even have had enough of a documentation archive to notice changes in the coastline over centuries?

  21. AJP Crown says:

    The sheep is „Shaun“

    That proves my point. Be mistaken for a drippy Canadian pop singer or change the spelling of your own name.

    I wonder if anyone ever found an ancient Mesopotamian prediction of something similar

    Far from predicting it The Topography of the Temenos at Ur, by Martin Gruber, 2018, shows that they had to keep changing the level of the foundations as they went along.

  22. Owlmirror says:

    so the sea must have risen until then. But it has not exceeded today’s level.

    Corroboration: Early Holocene sea level rise.

  23. Owlmirror says:

    The reference for the original cuneiform that the story appears in mentions a couple of authors, and I realized that the journal they published in, Iraq, is archived in JSTOR. So for those interested in more detail, and who have access to JSTOR:

    Two Sketches from the Life at Ur, by C. J. Gadd
    Iraq, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Autumn, 1963), pp. 177-188
    https://www.jstor.org/stable/4199749

    Ninurta-Pāqidāt’s Dog Bite, and Notes on Other Comic Tales, by A. R. George
    Iraq, Vol. 55 (1993), pp. 63-75
    [same JSTOR url, but change the ending number to:] 4200367

    The second paper only has a couple of minor suggested re-parsings of the cuneiform at the end of the paper (he suggests that the close of the story has the cleaner basically saying “Enough already, it’s lunchtime!”), but the main text of the paper is interesting enough in its own right.

    George argues that the text he’s discussing, about the doctor who healed the dog bite, is actually about rivalry between the two cities of Nippur and Isin, possibly hinging on dialectical differences in Akkadian as spoken in the two cities. The healed man of Nippur invites the doctor from Isin to a meal at his house in Nippur as compensation, but gives directions that include asking a local vegetable seller for the exact house. When he does so, she talks to him, apparently politely, but the doctor complains about her being rude (George suggests some possible misinterpretations or mishearings). After the third instance of this, the vegetable seller loses her temper, and suggests that the local students should attack the doctor with their “practice buns” (that is, the fist-sized tablets of clay they used to practice their scribal skills).

  24. Owlmirror says:

    And I see that at least one later citing document, with a later translation, is available online for those interested:

    Treating Garments in the Old Babylonian Period:“At the Cleaners” in a Comparative View

    [EDIT: Changed URL from academia edu link to JSTOR, per following comment from languagehat.

    I think academia edu allows Google Scholar to link directly to the paper, but 404’s the same link if it comes from elsewhere. You could try searching Google Scholar for [author:”N Wasserman” garments], and see if the link it offers works.]

  25. I got:

    Page Not Found
    Sorry. We can’t find the page you’re looking for.

  26. Owlmirror says:

    Aha. Confirmed:

    ACADEMIA_URL=http://www.academia.edu/download/38062886/NW__Iraq_75_2013.pdf


    wget ${ACADEMIA_URL}

    results in 404: Not Found., but


    wget --referer=https://scholar.google.com/ ${ACADEMIA_URL}

    works! (With a 302 Found and a redirect to s3.amazonaws)

    Good to know for future reference.

    Possibly relevant detail: My wget pretends to be an Internet Explorer browser — I set it that way because arxiv (used to? still does?) get pissy if you use wget with the default user-agent string, and gave/gives a 403 Forbidden error.

  27. John Cowan says:

    I think I must have conflated MDWA with The Fever, Shawn’s self-written monologue (much later — I didn’t know this — a film starring Vanessa Redgrave), which I saw somewhere around 1990, and falsely remembered the former as a play because of the latter.

    A pity they never made the version with Shawn playing Andre and Gregory playing Wally, though.

    I had no idea that Wallace was the son of William, however. Cf. the Seldes Gang. Plus Timothy.

  28. ə de vivre says:

    Far enough, in fact, that the two rivers have merged into a single channel (Shatt-el-Arab) before even reaching the sea.

    Up until at least the beginning of the Old Babylonian period (around the rise of Hammurabi’s dynasty) the Tigris and Euphrates formed more of a single anastomic system rather than two discrete rivers. Agricultural engineering might also have played a role in driving them apart, but I forget the argument behind that one.

    When he does so, she talks to him, apparently politely, but the doctor complains about her being rude

    That sounds like a riff on a story describing a scribal student in Nippur who doesn’t understand the Sumerian that an uneducated woman speaks. But the “so learned you don’t know how to do anything” theme was popular in Old Babylonian schools.

  29. January First-of-May says:

    That sounds like a riff on a story describing a scribal student in Nippur who doesn’t understand the Sumerian that an uneducated woman speaks.

    Did they even still have uneducated women in Nippur who could speak Sumerian in the Old Babylonian age? I thought that Sumerian got extinct in the wild much earlier than that… though maybe the story is just older.

    (Some googling tells me that by then Nippur might well have been about the only place that actually could still have some around.)

  30. MDWA the Giant would have made a much better film.

  31. John Cowan says:

    Here’s a bit from Outies, demonstrating how to play dominance games with languages. Our anthropologist hero has landed on the planet of New Utah and has just arrived in Bonneville, a jumping-off place for pilgrimages by Himmists, guarded by two “farm boys” whose intentions are far from clear. The dominant religion on New Utah is LDS, of course, so Himmists tend to be looked down on.

    Asach, wrapped in a shapeless, hooded cloak, faded to the rear, allowing the farm boys to shove their way ahead into the shabby lobby. They did all the talking.

    Rum long tripela man bai kostim hamas?” How much is a room for three?

    The desk clerk feigned indifference. “Yu no save long tok anglis, a? Man bilong wokim gaden, a? Pilgrim, a? ” You don’t speak Anglic, huh? Farmer, huh? Pilgrim, huh?

    “Well, yeah”, grinned the lummox with the shotgun, still sporting his shades. “As a matter of fact, I do. Speak Anglic.”

    The clerk snorted.

    “Umm, yeah,” grinned the driver. “About 12,000 hectares.” Still grinning. “Farmer, I mean.” Still grinning. “You know, Saint George [the capital of New Utah]? Little TCM [the True Church Militant, the LDS military]—garden plot—just outside Saint George?”

    The clerk blanched. These weren’t Himmist hicks.

    Shotgun leaned elbows in the desk, which rather emphasized the sling crossing his several acres of chest. Still grinning. “Imagine!” he chirped brightly, “You’re right three for three! That one,” (he jerked his head rearwards) is the—pilgrim? Is that what you said? Did you actually say, pilgrim?”

    Now thoroughly confused, the clerk gaped until rescued by the driver who, still grinning, gave a little shrug. “Thing is, best not to Stick [LDS reference] your nose in, if you follow my meaning?”

    The clerk nodded.

    “So then, brother, “ he smiled, “how much is a room for three?

  32. The first part of The Gripping Hand (which has all the hallmarks of having been plotted entirely by Jerry Pournelle, with minimal input from Niven) is a mystery story that is unconnected to the main plot involving the Moties (except for introducing one fact about how the jump points work in the setting). Other than its irrelevance, I remember this section mostly for its blatant anti-Mormon tone.

  33. John Cowan says:

    It’s a necessary prequel to Outies, however, which makes it clear that the True LDS Church is not the direct successor of Earth’s mainstream LDS; it’s a fundamentalist offshoot (as the term “True” suggests) that became dominant on Maxroy’s Purchase and New Utah because it was much more ruthless than the other factions. Of course, 31C fundamentalists aren’t the same as 20-21C fundamentalists either.

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