Society

A 4,000-Year-Old Ancient Babylonian Customer Service Complaint

A clay tablet from ancient Babylon reveals that no matter where (or when) you go, good customer service can be hard find. So it was revealed by the irate copper merchant, Nanni, in 1750 B.C. The merchant’s aggravation is evident, spelled out in cuneiform on a clay tablet now displayed in The British Museum.

In what is said to be the oldest customer service complaint discovered, Babylonian copper merchant Nanni details at length his anger at a sour deal, and his dissatisfaction with the quality assurance and service of Ea-nasir.

Forbes reports, “The letter implies that Nanni had dispatched his personal assistants to Ea-nasir Fine Copper at least once looking for a refund, only to be rebuffed and sent home empty handed—and through a war zone!”

According to science site ABC Science, a translation of the tablet text is available in the book “Letters from Mesopotamia: Official, Business and Private Letters on Clay Tablets from Two Millenni” by Assyriologist A. Leo Oppenheim. The book includes translations of letters written in ancient Akkadian from many walks of life, “from poverty-stricken women to their generous brothers, from pregnant slave girls and yes, between merchants, manufacturers and traders.”

The translation lays out Nanni’s displeasure:

Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”

What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and umi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Samas.

How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.”

The complaint letter, written 3,750 years ago was found at the city of Ur. Ur (present day southern Iraq) was one of the most important Sumerian city-states in ancient Mesopotamia in the third millennium B.C. Mesopotamian society was advanced. The Mesopotamians had knowledge of medicine, astronomy, and agriculture, and had invented technologies such as glass-making, irrigation, textile weaving, and metal working.

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June 2017
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