A 5,000-year-old clay tablet detailing beer ingredients and carrying the world’s ‘first ever autograph’ has sold for £175,000 at auction.
The tablet is said to be the earliest known record of any personal name in history – indicated by symbols translating as ‘KU’ and ‘SIM’ in the top left corner.
Experts interpret these as spelling the name ‘Kushim’, possibly that of the government scribe who made the recording on the tablet for admin purposes.
Other inscriptions on the object appear to depict how beer was produced at the Middle Eastern Inanna Temple in 3,100 BC and supposedly detail a beer-making transaction.
The process of transforming barley or corn into beer and transporting it to the brewhouse is illustrated with primitive depictions of grains and bottles.
The square 3-inch by 3 inch tablet, sold by London-based Bloomsbury Auctions, was made in the ancient city of Uruk, in modern day southern Iraq.
The tablet has a few hairline cracks but otherwise was regarded as in ‘outstanding’ condition.
It fetched almost double its estimate of £90,000 when it was sold with Bloomsbury Auctions.
The successful US private collector paid a hammer price of £140,000, with extra fees taking the overall figure to £175,000.
‘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,’ said Timothy Bolton, a specialist at Bloomsbury Auctions.
‘In addition, our names are important to us, they are a fundamental part of our identity and probably the first thing any child learns about itself.
‘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.
‘We were delighted with the result, as well as pleased to be part of this piece passing from one important collection to another on its journey through the ages.’
The tablet is part of The Schøyen Collection, a large and prodigious private collection of manuscripts, some dating back as far ago as 5,300 years.
‘This exceptionally fine, perfect, administrative tablet is not only the finest such tablet in The Schøyen Collection, but it also has claim to be the earliest known record of any personal name in history,’ said Bloomsbury.
Kushim is the earliest known example of a named person in writing, although some sources claim uncertainty of whether the name refers to a person or an institution.
On the tablet, ‘KU’ and ‘SIM’ is indicated by two symbols in the top left corner – a horizontal rectangle divided into two sections and a downward pointing leaf directly beneath it.
As noted by Y. N. Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, this apparent signature is simply evidence of a transaction between beer makers and suppliers.
Narari claims that the slab is a receipt for multiple shipments of barley and that it simply says ‘29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim’.
The symbols depict the entire industrial process of making beer, from an ear of barley or corn, to a brick-building with a chimney that might be the brewery itself and the barley or corn within a jar signifying the beer.
The dots and other impressions on the clay most likely indicate numbers and probably recorded the amounts of beer being produced.
Kushim is known from 17 other tablets, and in some of those addressed as ‘Sanga’ or temple administrator.
None of those, however, appear to be recorded in private ownership, contributing to the selling price of this item, which had been in a prominent Swiss collection since the 1950s.
Beer is one of the oldest drinks produced by humans, with barley beer being traced back to 5,000 BC in ancient Eygpt and Mesopotamia.
Brewers were often women and the alcoholic drink was sometimes used as antibiotic medicine.