Ancient Practices: Code of Ur-Nammu

Known as the first surviving set of laws of human civilization, dating back to the end of 3rd Millennium BCE, the code of Ur-Nammu is, arguably, credited to the Sumerian king Ur-Nammu of Ur (2112–2095 BCE). Unlike code of Urukagina, there are some 40 laws remained intact from the code of Ur-Nammu. However, there is a strong suspicion among archaeologists since the original laws were inscribed in a stone stele which is not found (yet!) and only the clay “copies” from later centuries are the source for the code (see sample below). However, the cuneiform are rich in detail and contain the first legal code. Kramer (1971), in his summary, points that the laws are, arguably, the first occurrence of eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth litigation. There is more than just resemblance to the later social orders. Notable Assyriologist A. R. George (2003), in a critically rich analysis, finds no discrepancies in the historical evidence that Sumerian practices both shaped and are at the root of Judaic, Mandaean Gnostic, Christian and Islamic belief systems.Ur-Nammu TabletValek summarizes it as follows,

The Code of Ur-Nammu divided society into two classes: free people and slaves. Slaves usually worked as servants but also as craftsmen. They were owned by their masters, but their legal status was relatively free. They could give evidence in court, get married and own possessions. The code also dealt with the punishment of perpetrators of bodily harm and sexual offences, and regulated soldiers’ relationships with first and second wives. The years in which Ur-Nammu created his code are therefore called “Year in which Ur-Nammu the king put in order the ways from below to above”, and “Year Ur-Nammu made justice in the land”.

The structure of the provisions is simplistic in terms of causation i.e., if this then that. This simplistic style dominated the later succeeding Babylonian as well as Abrahamic codes. The code of Ur-Nammu addresses legal matters in context of legal murder, sex, assault, criminal, marital, accusation, and estate. Some examples include,

If a man commits a murder, that man must be killed.

If a man divorces his first-time wife, he shall pay her one mina of silver.

If a man appears as a witness, but withdraws his oath, he must make payment, to the extent of the value in litigation of the case.

The moral aspect of the code, albeit interesting, and requires a discussion of its own; this is not the point of interest here. What is of significance in this, otherwise little known code, is the emergence, mutation and persistence of practices which directly stems out of preceding practices. That is, instead of seeing it as the first know code, we must understand it as an emergent temporal phenomenon. Every thread of practice in the social fabric, in other words, is interwoven with an much older thread. Underneath every practice, there lies another one. By pulling a thread, in order to seek the origin, is equal to rip apart the whole tapestry. Instead, in order to make sense of it all, the question, therefore, is not to seek what comes first; or, who makes who; the fabric or the thread? It is to interpret and understand one given thread where it belongs in the larger whole.

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