An anonymous collector from the US won, to the tune of 175,000 pounds (around 195,000 euro), an extraordinary archaeological find, sold by the historical British action house of Bloomsbury Auctions. It was an ancient Sumerian Tablet, found in Uruk, in Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq.

The historians believed that Uruk was one of the first human settlements to turn into a city, according to a social and economical hierarchy result of the work specialisation.

View on Uruk in 2008

Above: picture shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence OGL 1.0

Right in Uruk it seems that the first kind of writing was developed, fundamental step for the long journey to the progress of mankind.

The tablet sold at the auction, part of the private collection of Schøyen (a series of tablets and manuscripts from all over the world covering 5,000 years, very controversial for several ethical reasons on the method of acquisition), is a precious evidence of the Sumerian population: it does not only describe in details a commercial transaction about the production of beer, but it also contain that which is the very first signature ever appeared on a document.

The Sumerian tablet sold at a Bloomsbury auction

Above: picture by Bloomsbury Auctions

The importance of this tablet was summed up by Timothy Bolton, manager of the Bloomsbury’s manuscripts recognising its rarity:

“One only gets a few chances to work with any item of such importance, marking a milestone in perhaps the most important human invention: writing […].’Thus, it is a breathtaking thought that when you hold this item in the palm of your hand, you might hold the earliest record of a personal name[…].Our names are important to us, they are a fundamental part of our identity and probably the first thing any child learns about itself”.

It is the two symbols at the upper left hand corner, a rectangle placed horizontally and divided in two, with a leaf facing downwards right under it, translated in “KU and “SIM”, indicated as the alleged signature “Kushim”, perhaps the name of the scribe who incided the tablet to register the transaction, for administrative purpose.

Not all the experts agreed that Kushim was the name of a physical person: someone hypothesised that it might instead indicate a public office or maybe a generic title, as it has been found in other 17 tablets. In some of the there is the word “Sanga” which identifies the administrator of a temple.

The incisions onto the tablet are interpreted as the representation of the production of beer in the Inanna temple, around 3100 BC, and it probably approves a transaction amongst producers and suppliers of raw materials, like barley and corn. The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari supported in his “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” that the inscription can be translated in

29,086 measurements barley (in) 37 months Kushim

It should then be a receipt for the purchase of barley,  main ingredient of beer. The other symbols represent the process of production starting from the barley or corn plant, passing through a building equipped with a fireplace, which might represent the brewery, all the way to a spike placed inside a container, hence the beer.

The first evidence of beer consumption dates back right to the Sumerian civilisation, who left traces of a cheerful drinking episode of more people, from the same container, through long straws.

The most ancient representation of beer consumption in a Sumerian tablet

The beer is in fact one of the most ancient beverages produced by mankind, both in Mesopotamia and in Egypt; so important to become trading currency in some cases, used even to pay for labour.

Many Sumerian brewers were women. There, at the beginning of the civilisation in Mesopotamia occurred some of the biggest revolutions in terms of development of the human progress: the birth of agriculture, writing,cities and the division of time. The women had rights than thousands of years later were denied to them, like owning properties, making contracts and asking for divorce. And this was what was going on some far 5,000 years ago.

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