Grain Storage and the Moral Economy in Mesopotamia (3000-2000 BC)

A Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Division of the Humanities in Candidacy for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

By Tate Paulette

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Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Chicago
Commitee: McGuire Gibson, David Schloen, Michael Dietler, Scott Branting


In Mesopotamia, grain was king. Or, to put it more accurately, grain made kings. The palace and temple institutions that rose to prominence during the third millennium BC were built on the production, stockpiling, and distribution of grain, and they invested an enormous amount of energy in managing and monitoring the grain supply. I argue that these efforts to control the agricultural economy would also have required a shift in the moral economy – that is, a shift in the way that people understood and experienced three interwoven themes: inequality, access to food, and the distribution of risk. As more and more people were drawn into the institutional orbit, many came to depend directly on the disbursement of food from institutional storage facilities. But how many people? What percentage of the population found itself (willingly or unwillingly) within the “magic circle” (Oppenheim 1977: 89) of the institutional storage system? I argue that the archaeological evidence for grain storage facilities – extra-household facilities, in particular – offers one means of addressing this deceptively simple question. My study is built around a series of site-based case studies drawn from Northern and Southern Mesopotamia. The focus is explicitly quantitative. In each case, I provide a detailed description of the available evidence, but I focus on compiling information about storage capacity. I then perform a series of calculations to estimate the number of people and the percentage of the population that could have been supported with the stored grain. I emphasize the uncertainty involved in these calculations and also the importance of taking the risk-buffering function of grain storage into account. Overall, the evidence that I have collected is extremely diverse and does not map easily onto the idealized image of a centripetally organized storage economy. This mismatch could be explained in a number of ways, but I suggest that we may need to reconsider both the structure and the magnitude of the institutional storage economy.