The oldest known letter of complaint involves the purchase of copper.
The quality of raw materials must be right today, just as it was in 1,750 BC. The oldest surviving customer complaint dates from around this year. It was written in cuneiform on a closely inscribed clay tablet. On it, a customer named Nanni expresses his displeasure with the wholesaler Ea-nasir. According to Nanni, the latter had wanted to sell his messenger inferior copper. At the same time, he criticizes the lack of respect shown to him and his servant and the failure to return the money he had previously deposited. From now on, he only wants to buy copper ingots from Ea-nasir, which he selects in his own yard, the complainant continues.
These and other business correspondences were found in the Mesopotamian city of Ur in present-day Iraq. Archaeologists assume that the place of discovery was the residence of Ea-nasir. That the merchant picked up the clay tablets to enjoy the very drastic news of his customer may be doubted because only a few people in Mesopotamia could read. Rather, they were professional scribes and, at the same time, orators who delivered good and bad news. Meanwhile, archaeology again informs us about the fate of Ea-nasir. Excavations indicate that his home was built during his lifetime and partially integrated into the neighboring house, making it smaller. His standard of living may, therefore, have deteriorated. He may have overestimated himself and his business skills, which he used not only in the field of raw materials but also for land speculation, real estate, and trade in used clothing. Cobbler, stick to your last, one might say to Ea-nasir.
You can learn more about Nanni, Ea-nasir, and trade in the ancient Orient in Michael Rice’s comprehensive work “The Archaeology of the Arabian Gulf.”
Clay tablet with the complaint by Nanni in the British Museum London. Photo: Wikimedia/Zunkir