Courtesy of the Schøyen Collection

Laying down the law. The earliest known code of laws is the Ur-Nammu code from the reign of King Shulgi (2095–2047 B.C.) of Sumer. It predates Hammurabi’s law code by about 300 years. Schøyen’s copy, the clay cylinder at left, originally held all 57 laws of the code—covering criminal law, family law, inheritance law, labor law (including slave rights) and agricultural and commercial tariffs. Whereas other Near Eastern law codes like Hammurabi’s or that of the Bible (in Exodus) are retaliatory—prescribing “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” and so on—the Ur-Nammu code is less crude, despite being older. Instead of vengeance, it prescribes monetary compensation for wrongs: For instance, “If a man knocks out the eye of another man, he shall weigh out one-half a mina of silver.”