What Diplomacy in the Ancient Near East Can Tell Us About Blockchain Technology





Blockchain, Institutional Economics, Diplomatic Protocol, Ancient near east


A blockchain is an institutional technology—a protocol—that allows for economic coordination between agents separated by boundaries of possible mistrust. Blockchains are not the only technology in history to have these characteristics. The paper looks at the role of the diplomatic protocol at the very beginning of human civilisation in the ancient near east. These two protocols—diplomatic and blockchain—have significant similarities. They were created to address to similar economic problems using similar mechanisms: a permanent record of past dealings, public and ritualistic verification of transactions, and game-theoretic mechanisms of reciprocity. The development of the diplomatic protocol allowed for the creation of the first international community and facilitated patterns of peaceful trade and exchange. Some questions about a generalised ‘protocol economics’ are drawn.

Author Biography

Chris Berg, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing RMIT University

Chris Berg is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University.


Alster, B. “A note on the Uriah Letter in the Sumarian Sargon Legend” Zeitschrift fur Assyriologie 77 169-73 (1987) https://doi.org/10.1515/zava.1987.77.2.169

Altman, A. “The Role of the ‘Historical Prologue’ in the Hittite Vassal Treaties: An Early Experiment in Securing Treaty Compliance”, Journal of the History of International Law 6.1 43-63 (2004) https://doi.org/10.1163/157180504773805838

Aste, T. "The Fair Cost of Bitcoin Proof of Work," SSRN (27 June 2016) https://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2801048

Beckman, G. Hittite Diplomatic Texts. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press. (1999)

Berg, C., Davidson, S., Potts, J. “Blockchains industrialise trust,” SSRN (21 November 2017) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3074070

Berg, C., Davidson, S., Potts, J. “Institutional Cryptoeconomics: A New Model for a New Century”, CoinDesk (16 September 2017) https://www.coindesk.com/institutional-cryptoeconomics/

Berg, C., Davidson, S., Potts, J. “The Blockchain Econmoy: a beginner’s guide to institutional cryptoeconomics,” Medium (27 September 2017) https://medium.com/@cryptoeconomics/the-blockchain-economy-a-beginners-guide-to-institutional-cryptoeconomics-64bf2f2beec4

Berg, C., Davidson, S., Potts, J. “The Institutional Economics of Identity” 16 SSRN (16 November 2017) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3072823

Berg, C., Davidson, S., Potts, J. “What is a token?” Presentation at Crypto Economics Security Conference, Blockchain at Berkeley (2 October 2017) http://files.ozblogistan.com.au/sites/4/2017/10/03101044/What-is-a-token.pptx

Biggs, R. D. "Ebla Texts," in Freedman D. N. (Ed.) Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday 263-270 (1992)

Bliege Bird, R., Smith, E. A. “Signaling theory, strategic interaction, and symbolic capital,” Current Anthropology 46.2 222-248 (2005)

Buterin, V. “A Proof of Stake Design Philosophy” Medium (31 December 2016) https://medium.com/@VitalikButerin/a-proof-of-stake-design-philosophy-506585978d51

Catalini, C., Gans, J. S. "Some Simple Economics of the Blockchain" Rotman School of Management Working Paper No. 2874598 (2016) https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2874598

Coase, R. “The nature of the firm” Economica 4.16 386–405 (1937)

Coase, R. “The problem of social cost” Journal of Law and Economics 3 1–44 (1960)

Cohen, R. "All in the Family: Ancient near Eastern Diplomacy," International Negotiation 1.1 11–28 (1996) https://dx.doi.org/10.1086/508575

Cohen, S. Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta (PhD thesis). University of Pennsylvania 38-39 (1974)

Cooper, J. S., Heimpel, W. "The Sumerian Sargon Legend," Journal of the American Oriental Society 103.1 67-82 (1983) https://doi.org/10.2307/601860

Costello, S. K., “Image, Memory and Ritual: Re-viewing the Antecedents of Writing,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21.2 247-62 (2011)

Davidson, S., de Filippi, P., Potts, J. "Blockchains and the Economic Institutions of Capitalism" Journal of Institutional Economics (forthcoming)

Djankov, S., Glaeser, E., La Porta, R., Lopez-de-Silanes, F., Shleifer, A. “The New Comparative Economics,” Journal of Comparative Economics 31.4 595-619 (2003) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jce.2003.08.005

Foster, B. R. "Water under the Straw: Peace in Mesopotamia," in K. A. Raaflaub (Ed.) War and Peace in the Ancient World. Maldon, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing 66-80 (2007)

Güner, S., Druckman, D. "Identification of a Princess under Incomplete Information: An Amarna Story," Theory and Decision 48.4 383–407 (2000) https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1005205315505

Iannaccone, L. R. “Sacrifice and Stigma: Reducing Free-riding in Cults, Communes, and Other Collectives,” Journal of Political Economy 100.2 271-291 (1992)

Jönsson, C. “Diplomatic Signaling in the Amarna Letters,” in R. Cohen, R. Westbrook (Eds.) Amarna Diplomacy: The Beginnings of International Relations Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press 191-204 (2000)

Jönsson, C., Hall, M. Essence of Diplomacy. United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan (2005)

Kavanagh, D., Miscione, G. “Bitcoin and the Blockchain: A coup d’état in Digital Heterotopia?” in Critical Management Studies Conference. Leicester (2015) https://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2624922

Kertzer, D. I. Ritual, Politics, and Power. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (1988)

Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. "To Write or Not to Write" in T. Potts, M. Roaf, D. Stein (Eds.) Culture through Objects: Ancient Near Eastern studies in honour of P. R. S. Moorey. Oxford: Griffith Institute, 59–75 (2003)

Liverani, M. International Relations in the Ancient near East, 1600-1100 BC. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan 124 (2001)

Matthews, R. “Writing (and Reading) as Material Practice: The world of cuneiform culture as an arena for investigation,” in K. E. Piquette, R. D. Whitehouse (Eds.) Writing as Material Practice: Substance, surface and medium London: Ubiquity Press 65-74 (2013)

Michalowski, P. "Sumerian Literature: An Overview," in J. Sasson (Ed.) Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. New York: Scribner 2284-85 (1995)

Michalowski, P., Reiner, E. Letters from Early Mesopotamia. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press (1993)

Morris, E. F. "Bowing and Scraping in the Ancient near East: An Investigation into Obsequiousness in the Amarna Letters," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65.3 179-196 (2006)

Morris, E. F. "Bowing and Scraping in the Ancient near East: An Investigation into Obsequiousness in the Amarna Letters." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 65.3 179-196 (2006) https://doi.org/10.1086/508575

Pilkington, M. "Blockchain Technology: Principles and Applications," in F. Olleros and M. Zhegu (Eds.) Research Handbook on Digital Transformations. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar 225–253 (2015) https://dx.doi.org/10.4337/9781784717766.00019

Podany, A. H. Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient near East. New York: Oxford University Press 26-28 (2010)

Podany, A. H. “Preventing Rebellion Through the Creation of Symbolic Ties of Kinship,” in S. Richardson (Ed.) Rebellions and Peripheries in the Cuneiform World. Connecticut: American Oriental Society 47-74 (2010)

Reijers, W., O'Brolcháin, F., Haynes, P. “Governance in Blockchain Technologies & Social Contract Theories”, Ledger 1 134−151 (2016) https://dx.doi.org/10.5195/LEDGER.2016.62

Shea, W. H. "The Form and Significance of the Eblaite Letter to Hamazi," Oriens Antiquus 23 143-158 (1984)

Sosis, R. “Why aren’t we all Hutterites? Costly signaling theory and religious behavior,” Human Nature 14.2 91-127 (2003)

Williamson, O. The Economic Institutions of Capitalism. New York: Free Press (1985)

Williamson, O. “Transaction cost economics: the governance of contractual relations” Journal of Law and Economics 22.2 233–61 (1979)

Yermack, D. "Corporate Governance and Blockchains," Review of Finance 21.1 7–31 (2017) https://dx.doi.org/10.1093/rof/rfw074

Zaccagnini, C. "Ideological and Procedural Paradigms in Ancient near Eastern Long Distance Exchanges: The Case of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta," Altorientalische Forschungen 20.1 34-42 (1993) https://doi.org/10.1524/aofo.1993.20.1.34

Additional Files



How to Cite

Berg, C. (2017). What Diplomacy in the Ancient Near East Can Tell Us About Blockchain Technology. Ledger, 2, 55–64. https://doi.org/10.5195/ledger.2017.104



Research Articles