The first writing: counting beer for the workers


British Museum

British Museum
London, United Kingdom

On this clay tablet is some of the earliest writing from anywhere in the world. It was made around 3100–3000 BC in southern Iraq, known as Mesopotamia. The text records beer given to workers as part of their daily rations.

This type of writing is not an alphabet. Instead hundreds of different characters represent goods, animals, places or jobs, as well as numbers, administrative processes (such as types of transfer or storage), and sounds for writing people’s names.

Most of these characters started out as simplified drawings of what they represented. The symbol for beer is an upright jar with a pointed base. It appears three times on this tablet. The beer itself is shown as wavy lines inside the jar. Beer was the most popular drink in Mesopotamia for men, women and children alike. It was safer and maybe tastier than water. Another important character is the bowl tipped towards a human head (in the bottom row on the left). This is the sign for 'to eat', and it’s what shows us that the text is about rations.

Writing is the physical recording of a spoken language. It is a relatively late invention in human development. It emerged in southern Iraq c. 3200 BC. Various other recording systems had been in use there, but writing offered an advantage over them. We don’t actually know for sure what language is written here, but most experts believe it to be Sumerian (now long extinct).

Most of the very earliest tablets come from the site of Uruk in southern Iraq. It is thought that this form of writing (called cuneiform, meaning ‘wedge shaped’) was invented there. Writing seems to have been invented not for letters, literature or scripture, but for accountancy. The tablets were found discarded from large temples, later re-used as packing material for the foundations of new buildings.


  • Title: The first writing: counting beer for the workers
  • Date Created: -3100/-3000
  • Physical Dimensions: Height: 9.40cm; Width: 6.87cm; Thickness: 2.30cm
  • External Link: British Museum collection online
  • Technique: impressed
  • Registration number: 1989,0130.4
  • Period/culture: Late Uruk
  • Material: clay
  • Copyright: Photo: © Trustees of the British Museum
  • Acquisition: Previous owner/ex-collection Erlenmeyer, Hans. Purchased through Christie's

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