LaunchPad: Trade in Old Babylonia

Trade in Old Babylonia: An Exploration for Middle School Students

First artifact, a man of clay A plaque of a harp | "Duck Weight" | A bronze statuette | Explore older Mesopotamian artifacts on your own


You are an archaeologist uncovering artifacts found in Old Babylonia. What can you learn from them about trade there as well?

First artifact, a clay bust of a man.

Many artifacts from Old Babylonia were made in Old Babylonia. Is this one of them?

Go to The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Clay Head of Male: Old Babylonian; 2000-1600 BCE. to see a small picture of the first artifact and to read about it. Click on the artifact for a larger picture.

  • What makes it likely that the Clay Head of a Male was made in Babylonia?
  • Archaeologists believe the clay head was on a wooden figure. Why wasn’t the wood recovered?
  • Most of the artifacts archaeologists uncover from Old Babylonia are made of clay. Why do you think that is the case?
  • What were the advantages of using clay, especially in Babylonia?
  • Would a soldier rather have a sword made of clay or a sword of bronze? Why? What are the disadvantages of clay?
  • Many factors can determine an item’s value. Remember that the word "value" does not always mean how much it costs in dollars. Some items may have great cultural value, even if they are made from an inexpensive material. However, considering material only, which is likely to have a higher monetary value today, a modern piece of ceramic jewelry or a modern piece of gold jewelry? Why do clay and gold have different values?

The second artifact, a ceramic plaque showing a harp.

At the time of Old Babylonia, harps were also played in countries as distant as Greece and Egypt.

Go to:

The Oriental Institute: The University of Chicago’s Ceramic Plaque Showing a Harpist: Old Babylonian; 2000-1600 BCE.

  • This sculpture of a harp is made of clay, but the original Mesopotamian instruments—such as the Harp and Lyre (a link from The Oriental Institute: The University of Chicago) from about 2600 BCE, uncovered at Ur—might have featured inlays of lapis lazuli, silver, pearl, and ivory. According to the resource map, where are each of those natural resources found?
  • Harps were played in Greece and Egypt as well as Mesopotamia. It is possible that this instrument developed independently in each of these locations, however, it might also suggest that there was contact between these civilizations. Does the appearance of the harp in these three locations give you any ideas about how ideas move between countries? Could the trading of goods also result in the trading of ideas?

"Duck Weight"

The third artifact, standard weights in the shape of ducks used in buying and selling. You may have used standard weights, such as a twenty-gram weight, in a science experiment. You must trust that a standard weight is as advertised, that is, a twenty gram weight must actually weigh twenty grams.

Go to The Oriental Institute: The University of Chicago’s Duck Weights of Hematite from the Early Second Millennium BCE.

  • Hematite, a very hard stone, is used here as a standard weight. What’s the advantage of using a very hard material to create a standard weight to be used in buying and selling?
  • What does this artifact imply about buying and selling in Old Babylon?
  • Hematite is a form of iron ore. Where is iron found?

The fourth artifact, a small bronze statue or statuette.

Bronze was used for many purposes, including the making of weapons. It was, therefore, very important. Bronze is an alloy of copper, that is, it is made of a combination of copper and other metals, usually tin and zinc.

Go to The Oriental Institute: The University of Chicago’s Bronze Statuette: 18th-17th Century BCE.

  • Unfortunately, this statue was stolen from an archaeological site. The looters claim that the site was in Iraq and art historians believe that this artifact dates to the Old Babylonian period. What sorts of information about the object might lead scholars to these beliefs?
  • Without having the information about exactly where the statue was found and what other objects may have been found with it, how can we gather information about the statue?
  • Where might the copper in this bronze statuette have originated?
  • Without being able to know for sure what the context of this statue was, what purposes can you suggest for the use of this object?
  • What inferences can one make from the use of bronze for objects other than weapons? Could it indicate that bronze was plentiful? That organized religion in Babylonia was wealthy? That a wealthy patron gave the statuette as an offering? A different inference?
  • What hypothetical archaeological discovery might help determine which inference is correct?

Check out some older artifacts from Mesopotamia.

Long before the rise of Babylonia, trade was active in Mesopotamia. Check out the The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibit Art of the First Cities. In the categories: Masterpieces; The Ruler; The Divine World; Death and Burial; Writing; Seals and Sealing; and Clothing and Personal Adornment, select the artifacts from Mesopotamia.

  • From what imported natural resources are these artifacts made?
  • Using the natural resource map try to identify where those resources might have originated.
  • Do these objects use the same or different resources as the objects that you have looked at above?
  • What does this tell you about the trade systems that were in place in Mesopotamia?