Early writing tablet recording the allocation of beer

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Illustration

by Trustees of the British Museum
published on 26 April 2012

Probably from southern Iraq, Late Prehistoric period, 3100-3000 BC.


This clay tablet has an early example of writing, in the form of pictographs drawn in clay with a sharp instrument. In this case they record the allocation of beer.

The symbol for beer, an upright jar with pointed base, appears three times on the tablet. Beer was the most popular drink in Mesopotamia and was issued as rations to workers.

Alongside the pictographs are five different shaped impressions, representing numerical symbols. Over time these signs became more abstract and wedge-like, or 'cuneiform'.

The earliest tablets with written inscriptions represent the work of administrators, perhaps of large temple institutions, recording the allocation of rations or the movement and storage of goods.

Writing, the recording of a spoken language, emerged from earlier recording systems at the end of the fourth millennium. The first written language in Mesopotamia is called Sumerian. Most of the early tablets come from the site of Uruk, in southern Mesopotamia, and it may have been here that this form of writing was invented.

The signs are grouped into boxes and, at this early date, are usually read from top to bottom and right to left. One sign, in the bottom row on the left, shows a bowl tipped towards a schematic human head. This is the sign for 'to eat'.

The earliest evidence for writing in Mesopotamia was discovered in Eanna, though it is difficult to date precisely. The clay tablets it was found on had been used as packing for foundations of later buildings.

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