A 5,000-year-old Sumerian tablet from the city of Uruk, which recently come into the possession of the British Museum, reveals that some Mesopotamian workers were rewarded for their toil with beer.
5,000 years ago, Uruk wasn’t that different from any modern city. While there wasn’t any electricity or modern technology, inhabitants of the city – which is located in what would one day become modern Iraq – worked for a living, played games in their downtime and sent each other missives using cuneiform, the writing system pioneered by the Sumerians. Now, it has been revealed that ancient Sumerian workers were sometimes compensated for their time and energy in the form of beer, according to a cuneiform pay stub that has survived to this very day.
According to an article appearing in New Scientist, the tablet bears specific symbols including a stylized human head eating from a bowl (which meant “ration” to the Sumerians) and a conical vessel for containing an alcoholic beverage (the cuneiform for “beer”). Around the tablet appear markings that record how much beer a specific worker was entitled to, the article explains.
Mesopotamians weren’t the only ones to use alcohol as a currency. In fact, ancient Egyptians were often paid anywhere from 4 to 5 liters of beer a day for working on the pyramids. The custom persisted until much later in history, records exist from as late as the fourteenth century, such as the 252 gallons of wine a year which was part of Geoffrey Chaucer’s salary as decreed by King Richard II. This system differs from even more ancient evidence indicating that many prehistoric settlements were more egalitarian – instead of getting paid for work, everyone within the community would share the work and then reap the rewards collectively.
While this has changed, and while it seems a no-brainer to award workers with alcoholic beverages to keep them in line, there’s more at play here than just keeping workers happily drunk. Ancient beer doubled as a food item, as it was loaded with starches that made it an excellent choice for nutrition. Meanwhile, popular thought from the Middle Ages included the belief that consuming wine regularly was excellent for your health. Some historians believe that wine might have been the healthier choice during times that Europe was gripped by plague, as water supplies could easily become tainted; wine sealed in casks and bottles, by comparison, would have been relatively safe to drink.
The tradition isn’t without its modern adherents as well. The city of Amsterdam began a controversial new initiative in 2013, aimed at helping alcoholics and encouraging them to become functioning members of society once more, that involves reimbursing them in beer for picking up trash. Less strange is the common practice of many Silicon Valley companies providing free drinks to their staff on Friday afternoons.
However, with this newly-translated pay stub, one that stretches back literally thousands of years, it’s clear that the modern practice of compensating workers with a few alcoholic beverages now and again is hardly a new or controversial idea but instead one that’s been present throughout recorded history.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: BabelStone