The article provides a historical analysis of cuneiform records concerning the circulation of unfree humans among the political-cultic elite in southern Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf during the Early Dynastic IIIb period, ca. 2475–2300 BCE. The analysis of the written data from the Adab city-state demonstrates that the royal house used the unfree as gifts to maintain a sociopolitical network on three spatial levels – the internal, local, and (inter)regional. The gift-givers and gift-receivers were mostly male adult members of the local and foreign elite, whereas the dislocated unfree humans were heterogeneous in terms of age, gender, and the ways they lost their freedom. The author relates the social profiles of both groups to the logistics of human traffic to reveal the link between social status and forms and nature of spatial mobility in the politically and socially unstable Early Dynastic Near East.
Although the archaic lists are of the utmost importance, as they mark the beginning of the 3,000-year lexical tradition in ancient Mesopotamia, their function is largely unresolved. This contribution suggests that a key to their understanding can be found in the context of a transforming and expanding writing system that is still rooted in administrative practices. The success of the new bureaucratic notation system leads to an expansion of its administrative use, which in turn leads to a demand for more signs and sign combinations. The lexical corpus is the result of a systematic push of the proto-cuneiform frontier—i. e. the range of what can be expressed through proto-cuneiform signs. The lists thus offer a range of exploratory signs that can be implemented for administrative purposes and also have the potential to go beyond bureaucracy. In addition, they exemplify the rules underlying the systematic exploration of the potential of (proto-)cuneiform, thus contributing to the further transformation of the writing system.