The discovery of Hammurabi's Code by French archaeologists in December of 1901, in three pieces, became the earliest-known complete legal code. The seven foot Hammurabi pillar, now housed at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, presently stands as the law's holy grail but with an asterix.

Cave-man Settles Down

Since 1-million B.C., humans had left Africa and had arrived in Europe and China. By 100,000 B.C., wild Neanderthals represented the human race until about 30,000 B.C. when the smarter but smaller homo sapiens wiped them out.

When the last Ice Age ended in 10,000, humans were ripe for society. Hunting groups are choosing to stay in one place, tame horses and camels, invent tools, grow crops and build walls, as described in The Origin of Law.

Gradually the dominance of force as law was replaced by thought-based ideas, needed to manage life in cities some of which, by 2,000 B.C., had reached 250,000 citizens.

Pieces of other, older law codes, have been found, such as from Ur. Archaeologists surmise that Hammurabi's Code was largely drawn from previous law codes such as the Laws of Urnamma, circa 2,000, of which a full set has never been found.

Sumerian tabletBut in 1915, an analysis of ancient tablets that had were stored in Philadelphia were shown to be two tablets of a code of law of Ur, circa 2,400 B.C.

Fragments, only, but tantalizing nonetheless.

About three-quarters of the fragments from Ur are the same rules of law as can be found in Hammurabi's code of 1780 B.C.

Another find was of a school tablet attributed to Ur and which set out family law rules, possibly taken from the formal version of an existing law. Again, much of it is similar to Hammurabi's Code such as this, which resembles 142nd and 143rd sections of Hammurabi's Code:

"If a wife hate her husband and says 'thou art not my husband', into the river they shall throw her."

Other records point to law codes of even earlier date, likely for the small city of Uruk (Erech in the Bible, Genesis 10:10; now Warka, Iraq), but for which there is still no direct evidence.

There are written records of contracts, especially sale of land and farms, and court judgments dated to about 2,400 B.C. but still no law code.

The hunt continues for an earlier law code. Current technology, especially snail-pace advances in ground x-ray, augurs well.

Where To Look?

China had a writing system as far back as 6,000 B.C., mostly a consolidation of known symbols. Tablets of early writing, called the Tartaria Tablets, were found in Romania in 1961 and  have been dated to 5,500 B.C.

The Sumerians developed their own system of symbol-based writing, cuneiform, in about 3,000 B.C. But these writing systems require carving on a hard surface such as stone, clay or shells.

The advent of this invention presented opportunities for recording historical events, such as law.

When the Egyptians discovered the ability to write symbols on papyrus in about 3,000, writing became much easier and cheaper, although the texts were not as durable.

As early as about 3,000 B.C., there is evidence of a federation of Sumerian states based in Nippur (now Nuffar, Iraq), situated in the south of the modern state of Iraq.

Irrigation canals in Egypt and Mesopotamia have been dated to 3,000 B.C. In Babylon (near present-day Al Hillah, Iraq), a numbering system based on sets of 60s is developed. The system, known as sexagesimal, is still in use in marking time.

Concurrently, the Chinese invent the abacus. Archaeologists know that the Xia dynasty existed in about 2,500 B.C. with a monarchy system of government.

Oh Pharaoh!

Meanwhile, the Egyptians developed a 365-day calendar divided into twelve 30-day months. Circa 2575 B.C., Egypt had copper and malachite mines in Sinai and had a slave-based economy, which they took from Nubia (now northern Sudan).

Ancient Egyptian law is notorious for a dearth of legal texts, but not atypical with a strict monarchy, especially where the monarch (aka pharaoh) is taken to be a god himself. Why write down edicts when any dispute could be resolved by reference to a living god?

Or, perhaps the Egyptians, not unlike the British tradition of common law, preferred oral customs handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and saw no need to set it to writing.

Another possibility is that the laws were all set to papyrus, which did not survive the human (wars and intentional destruction) or natural disasters (earthquakes and fires) besetting Egypt from time to time through its early history. Finally, the Egyptians seemed focused on death which may have provide little motivation to articulate rules of order for the living.

Egyptian pyramidsBut the Egyptians were thorough in government. They developed monarchy succession and first conceived of the idea of dynasties. The second dynasty of Egypt is thought of have been the petri dish for old Egyptian architecture, writing and government systems.

In 2,800, the great Sumerian city of Kish (now Tell al-Uhaymir, Iraq) rose to prominence as did, a hundred years later, the city of Ur (which is mentioned in the Bible; now Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq). Ur had a monarchy form of government and, by 2,200 B.C., a  quarter-million inhabitants.

In 2,300 B.C., there is evidence of a King Sargon who ruled Sumeria and who maintained a complex commercial infrastructure, trading with inhabitants of modern-day Lebanon and maintaining solver mines in the Taurus mountains overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

In two other areas of the world, complex societies rise, societies that must of had law to stay organized.

Feldbrugge writes of the:

".. late Uruk period (3,500-3,000), a period in which law cannot have been absent and must have been developed but a prehistoric phase about which we have no written information."

The holy grail of the law remains an elusive prize for legal historians and archaeologists. For now, all we have points to Mesopotamia, a society with slavery and clear social structures and, perhaps most importantly, contracts: agreements between individuals recorded in writing in case the terms were later disputed. These were the sparks of law, if not the holy grail, as contracts involved enforcement by government adjudicators known as judges.

The discovery of the 1780 B.C. Hammurabi Code presents the greatest tease to legal historians and archaeologists.

There must be more; earlier codes.

The Gods People Are Crazy

Much of the Mesopotamian and Sumerian artifacts are now buried in the soil of Iraq. The Iraqi government is struggling to establish peace and order for its people necessarily placing the protection of archaeological digs on the bottom wrung of political priorities.

In addition, the ruins of Babylon and Sumeria are within a territory ruled, at least in part, as a theocracy. The Muslim religion, as with almost all religions, is exclusive and does not cherish a past of Mesopotamian gods or relics. This directly jeopardizes any items that might be found by the locals, as archaeological treasures often are. There is not enough culture of culture.

The law's holy grail may have suffered its greatest setback when Iraqi looters ransacked the national museum on April 10, 2003:

"After two days of looting, almost all of the museum's 170,000 artifacts were either stolen or damaged. Ancient vases were smashed. Statues were beheaded. In the museum's collection were items from Ur and Uruk, the first city-states, settled around 4000 B.C., including art, jewellery and clay tablets containing cuneiform, considered to be the first examples of writing."1

Astonishingly, the riches of Iraq were looted by the people of Iraq.

But the law's holy grail may yet lay concealed and protected under several feet of desert sand, waiting for that moment when the gentle swoosh of an archaeologist's brush reveals it to the world and the headlines can declare that the holy grail of the law has been found.


  • Doren, C., A History of Knowledge (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), pages 1-27.
  • Duhaime, Lloyd, Ancient Egyptian Law
  • Edwards, Chilperic, The World's Earliest Laws (London: Watts & Co., 1934).
  • Feldbrugge, F., The Law's Beginnings (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2003), page 145.
  • Mellersh, H., Chronology of World History, Volume 1 (Oxford: Helicon Publishing, 1999).
  • Witt, L., The End of Civilization, April 17, 2003, (note 1).