So this past while, I fell down a rabbit hole of epic proportions
procrastinating researching cuneiform tablets and their inscriptions on beer. I used the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative, which is an internet archive for cuneiform tablets from all over the world. This is an excellent resource and one well worth having a look and search through. I was able to narrow my search to some 155 tablets that discuss beer/ale. Now, I will say whilst the translation may say beer, we are talking about ale here, as we are talking about an unhopped malt-based fermented beverage. I posted a fair few interesting examples on Twitter, but I am now going to do a summary of those and some other things that I have found. I am going to divide this up into a few posts because otherwise this will be ungodsly long.
*Caveat here, while I am a historian, I am not an expert in cuneiform translation or ancient Mesopotamia, so I will be using the translations available on this database. That said, we do know that there is always some debate about translations.*
First, some background on Sumerian culture.
When Sumerian culture emerges in Mesopotamia it exhibited social stratification in its large cities, proto-cuneiform, and the invention of a wide variety of tools. It was a complex civilisation with centralised governments. The most powerful cities, like Umma, Ur and Girsu, were city-states with control over the local area. They were ruled by local rulers but also eventually by secular kings, who could control multiple city-states. They were each dedicated to a patron deity and characterized by a central ziggurat or temple complex.  And they certainly went to war with each other and other cultures.
Administration was a key part of these organizations. According to Peter Damerow, beer was not a simple agricultural product but, ‘belonged to the products subjected to the centralised economy of Sumerian states’. Indeed, he stated that the consumption and production of beer were separate entities and beer held this positon even after the decline of Sumerian culture.
So first up for exploration are some of these administrative and royal tablets. There are hundreds of these tablets that talk about beer from Sumeria. The ones from my 155 sample represent a range of periods in Sumerian culture. Some of these exact dates are contentious amongst scholars but here are some general ranges to you get an idea. For example these tablets come from periods such as the Early Dynastic Period (2900–2350 BC) to Ur III (~2112-2004 theres a few ranges for this one), and also to other cultures in the area like the Akkadian Empire (c. 2334–2218 BCE) and Old Babylonian (end of Ur III-1600BCE) periods. They also come from a range of different cities located within the Sumerian culture like Girsu and Umma. I will do my best to flag these periods and locations throughout these posts.
The earliest archaeological evidence for beer comes from Godin Tepe in the Zagros Mountains dating to the 4th millennium. Here ceramics have been tested and confirmed to at one time contained beer. This is the first evidence, but we know that beer was being made much earlier than this time.
A large number of these cuneiform texts, throughout these eras, were administrative documents involving the allocations, rations or payments for various amounts of food items, including beer, like the one in the featured image from this article. Some of these, like those at the Met, were actually rations for a specific group of people, like messengers. One from the reign of Ibbi-Sin, specifically dated to Month 2, Day 20 of the year c. 2028 BCE regards the rations of ale, oil, bread and onions for these messengers. And here it is in its glory:
Beer is listed in many, many of these as part of these rations, payments or allocations. There was also even a royal tablet from the city of Girsu dating to the Early Dynasty III period, c. 2500- 2340, BCE which listed beer as a gift!
One of these tablets from Girsu in the Ur III period, discussed female laborers and their work carrying ale from its start at the brewery to various secondary locations like a boat or the New Palace. Another tablet from this period, coming from the city of Umma, listed ’30 female labourer days, ‘beer-pouring’ of the sukkalmab’. According to Elisa Rossberger in her study on jars from ancient Mesopotamia, female servants also appeared to fulfil a serving role for ale. Indeed there are images of women serving ale from buckets. More on drinking and serving ale in a future post.
Another tablet from Umma this Ur III period focused on male labourers and their duties regarding ale.
The royal tablets, including one from Girsu in the Lagash II (2200- 2100 BCE) period, talks about Gudea and the building of the temple Eninnu, which included a brewery. It discussed the importance of cleanliness in a brewery particularly with regard to those who serve it (‘let hands always be washed’); and stated ‘that in Eninnu’s brewery, the ‘house with the clean arms’ emmer beer like the waters (of) Papsir might bubble.’ So the importance of cleanliness in brewing and serving is an ancient tradition. You can keep this in mind when you are scrubbing your mash tun for the millionth time
This isn’t the only one talking about the importance of clean hands in relation to brewing. This is a common theme. Besides cleaning hands to serve ale, one cuneiform tablet from Ur in the Old Babylonian period is a meant to be humorous tale of a man speaking to cleaner, where he orders the cleaner to ‘soak the delicate part (of the cloth) in beer. You will strain it through a sieve.’ So even useful in scrubbing clean your clothing!
And medical cuneiform tablets talk about using it within medicine. One decreed that ‘if a man’s belly is continually swollen, he should drink ninu-plant in beer, then he will recover.’ Beer has been used as a part of medicine for millennia. From the Sumerians to the Greeks, from the Middle Ages to Guinness, it has formed as either part, or the whole of medical treatments throughout the ages.
 Peter Damerow, ‘Sumerian Beer: The Origins of Brewing Technology in Ancient Mesopotamia’, in Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2012:2 p. 1.
 Charlotte Miller: ‘Sumerian City States’, November 21, 2020: https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/History/World_History/Book%3A_World_History_-_Cultures_States_and_Societies_to_1500_(Berger_et_al.)/02%3A_Early_Middle_Eastern_and_Northeast_African_Civilizations/2.06%3A_Sumerian_City-States
 Miller, ‘Sumerian City States’, https://human.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/History/World_History/Book%3A_World_History_-_Cultures_States_and_Societies_to_1500_(Berger_et_al.)/02%3A_Early_Middle_Eastern_and_Northeast_African_Civilizations/2.06%3A_Sumerian_City-States
 Damerow, ‘Sumerian Beer’, p. 2.
 Michael M. Homan, ‘Beers and Its Drinkers: An Ancient Near Eastern Love Story’, in Near Eastern Archaeology 67:2 (2004), p. 84.
 Damerow, ‘Sumerian Beer’, p.1.
 Elisa Rossberger, ‘What’s Inside This Jar?’: Actual and Iconic Use of Vessels in Early Mesopotamia’, in Kaskal Vol 15 (2018), p. 118.
 Rossberger, ‘What’s Inside This Jar’, p. 118.
2 thoughts on “In Which I Scour 155 Cuneiform Tablets for References to Beer”
Yes, it’s irritating that the convention among archaeologists and ancient historians is to say “beer” when, of course, what they’re actually talking about is ale, in its pre-16th century definition. I don’t think there’s any good answer to that problem, though, when “ale” has meant at least four different things over the past 500 years, and today means something very different to what it did in the time of Henry V …
Agree completely. It is fraught and I don’t have an answer myself except to keep defining it in each context.
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