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Shepherds at Umma in the Third Dynasty of Ur: Interlocutors with a World beyond the Scribal Field of Ordered Vision

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image of Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

The Third Dynasty of Ur was a highly bureaucratized, late 3rd millennium B.C.E. empire centering in southern Mesopotamia. Its state superstructure, known almost exclusively from many tens of thousands of looted cuneiform tablets, has long been studied. However, these sources deal only indirectly or not at all with the impacts of imperial rule on the great mass of the subject population. Drawing upon an earlier prosopographic study of animal husbandry for the single province and city of Umma, this article focuses on shepherds, the lowest level of the administration, as a means of penetrating that wall of silence. As interlocutors, needing to face and be credible in both directions, they become the basis for a more inclusive view of the nature of the Ur III state. Largely indifferent to the condition of its subjects and to the complex realities of the economic tasks imposed on them by heavy taxes and arduous corvée labor, the administrative elite emerges as not only repressive, but more narrowly extractive rather than broadly managerial in its intent and operations. The overriding focus in pursuit of which it was highly successful (although for less than a century), appears to have been the flow of resources that would enhance its own hegemony and well-being. La Troisième Dynastie d'Ur était un empire hautement bureaucratisé de la seconde moitié du 3^e millénaire avant l'ère chrétien, centré sur la Mésopotamie du sud. Sa superstructure étatique, connue presque exclusivement grâce à des dizaines de milliers de tablettes cunéiformes pillés, a été longuement étudiée. Toutefois, ces sources ne portent pratiquement sur l'impact qu'avait l'autorité impériale sur la population assujettie. Puisant dans une étude prosopographique antérieure sur l'élevage dans la seule province et ville d'Umma, cet article concerne les bergers, personnages situés au niveau le plus bas de l'administration, dont l'étude doit permettre de percer ce mur de silence. En tant qu'interlocuteurs crédibles tournés à la fois vers le bas comme vers le haut, ils peuvent fournir les bases d'une image plus globale de l'état d'Ur III. Il ressort l'image d'une élite administrative plus ou moins indifférente aux conditions des sujets et aux réalités complexes des taches économiques qui leur sont imposés par des impôts importants et des corvées pénibles ; elle était non seulement répressive mais animée par des intentions et des opérations plus extractives que managerielles. L'essentiel du fonctionnement étatique, poursuivi avec beaucoup de succès (bien que pendant moins d'un siècle), semble avoir été d'assurer un flux de ressources à même d'augmenter sa propre hégémonie et bien-être.


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