barley/wool price across 1500 years

The Laws of Eshnunna (ca. 1770 BGC, city of Eshnunna in ancient Mesopotamia) set prices for barley and wool in shekels of silver.  These probably were actual prices for Eshnunna’s procurement of large amounts of wool and barley.  Here’s a calculation of Eshnunna’s  price for barley in terms of wool:

“6  mina wool for 1 shekel of silver” [price in Laws of Eshnunna]
60 shekels per mina
360 shekels of wool for 1 shekel of silver
8.33 grams per shekel
3.0 kg of wool per 1 shekel of silver

“1 gur barley for 1 shekel of silver” [price in Laws of Eshnunna] [*]
300 litres per gur
0.3 cubic meter of barley for 1 shekel of silver

Hence 3.0/0.3=10.0 kg of wool per cubic meter of barley

Babylonian astronomers recorded prices for wool and barley from 382 BGC to 72 BGC.  These were probably prices for which transactions actually occurred.  The quartiles for the price distribution of kg of wool per cubic meter of barley over that period are: q1=10.5, median=15.2, q3=18.9.

The price of barley in wool ca. 1770 BGC in Eshnunna was roughly at the 25’th percentage point in the distribution for that price in Babylon about 1500 years later. Eshnunna and Babylon are geographically close in the Tigris-Euphrates river valley.  Both were part of the Old Babylonian Empire.

It seems to me that farming (barley) would provide more propitious circumstances for innovation and capital investment than herding (wool).  Hence I expected productivity growth to be greater in barley than wool.  That would reduce the wool price of barley. But the data indicate a small shift in the opposite direction.

Any thoughts on the long-run economics of wool and barley in ancient Mesopotamia?


[*] Roth, Martha Tobi, Harry A. Hoffner, and Piotr Michalowski (1995), Law collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor (Altanta, Ga.: Scholars Press) provides both a transliteration and a translation of the Laws of Eshnunna.  The translation, however, gives the relevant law as declaring, “600 silas of barley (can be purchased) for 1 shekel of silver.”  The transliteration and other sources indicate that this is a mistake.  The correct figure is 300 silas of barley.  The quoted phrases are my literal translation based on id.’s transliteration of the Sumerian.  A shekel in ancient Mesopotamia was a measure of weight, not a specific coin.

References on Babylonian prices:

R.J. van der Spek, Commodity Prices in Babylon 385 – 61 BC.

R.J. van der Spek, C.A. Mandemakers (2003). “Sense and nonsense in the statistical approach of Babylonian prices,” Bibliotheca Orientalis 60, Leiden.

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