Ancient Sumerian Tablet with ‘First Signature’ Sells for a Fortune
A signed Sumerian tablet that is over 5000 years old, from ancient Mesopotamia, has been sold at auction. This extremely historic artifact is believed to have one of the first-ever signatures and indications of a personal name. Interestingly the signed Sumerian tablet also depicts the brewing of beer and was probably an administrative record.
The signed Sumerian tablet was found in the ancient city of Uruk which was part of the Sumerian culture. Uruk is believed to have been one of the first cities in the world. The tablet was part of the privately held Schøyen Collection, a collection of tablets and manuscripts, dating back to the earliest days of written history.
Sold Signed Sumerian Tablet Has World’s First Signature
The tablet was made of baked clay and inscribed with symbols and impressions. The square item is 3 x 3 inches (7.6 x 7.6 cm) and is in good condition apart from a few slight cracks. However, what makes the tablet so important are the symbols and signs on the object. According to the Daily Mail it is believed 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.”
Position of the ‘first signature’ on signed Sumerian tablet. (Bloomsbury Auctions)
This “signature” has been interpreted by experts as spelling “Kushim.” Since very few were literate in ancient Sumeria, this individual was likely a government scribe and the object itself a record kept for administration purposes. It has been generally accepted that Kushim spells a personal name, but some have speculated that it is an official title. The signature Kushim is believed to be the earliest example of an autograph. The Daily Mail reports that the name “Kushim is known from 17 other tablets and in some of those addressed as ‘Sanga’ or temple administrator.”
The History of Personal Names, Signatures and Civilization
The name Kashim is not the only name found on ancient Mesopotamian artifacts. One of the earliest names is Turgunu Sanga, who may have been a record keeper for a leading family. Ancient Origins reports that “In another clay tablet, the name of Gal-San can be found.” He was a slave owner and we also know the name of two of his slaves.
The use of personal names allows us to better understand the ancient Mesopotamians and their views on personal identity and even individuality. Timothy Bolton, an expert at Bloomsbury Auctions, stated “our names are important to us, they are a fundamental part of our identity and probably the first thing any child learns about itself” according to Big World Tale. Therefore, it seems that the Sumerians had a sense of personal identity and even individuality and this may have been partly a result of the invention of writing.
Uruk Archaeological site at Warka, where the 5,000-year old, signed Sumerian tablet was unearthed. (MOD / OGL)
Keeping a Record: Beer Making in Ancient Mesopotamia
The Daily Mail quotes the well-known Israeli author T Y. N. Harari as saying that the clay tablet reads “29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim.” It appears to be a receipt for barley that was the main ingredient in Sumerian beer. This clay tablet is another illustrative example of how writing emerged from practical needs.
There are several markings on the object that seem to show how beer was produced at a temple in Mesopotamia in 3100 BC. Some images appear to show grains and jars and the process of brewing. The tablet apparently depicts or details the entire process, from the building of the brewery to the transportation of the beverage in jars. The Daily Mail reports that “The dots and other impressions on the clay most likely indicate numbers and probably recorded the amounts of beer being produced.”
The earliest record we have for the brewing of beer is from Sumer. One clay tablet in particular shows Sumerians sipping beers through a long straw. The alcoholic beverage played an important role in the ancient civilization’s myths, religion and society. Beer was even used to pay workers in Mesopotamia, just as in ancient Egypt.
The oldest depiction of beer-drinking shows people sipping from a communal vessel through reed straws. (Brauerstern)
Auction Bidding War For The First Signed Sumerian Tablet
The tablet was auctioned by Bloomsbury Auctions in London. According to Mr Bolton “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” reports the Daily Mail. The clay tablet had a reserve of £90,000 ($120,000) but when the auction started several bidders were keen to secure the artifact. A US collector won the bidding war and the final cost of the object, including fees, was £175,000 ($235,000). Diaz Hub reports that Mr Bolton and Bloomsbury were delighted with the auction: “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.”
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The clay tablet offers a unique insight into the world of ancient Mesopotamia, located mainly in modern Iraq but also extended to parts of Turkey and Syria. The region produced many empires and cultures, and among the most important of these were the Sumerians. Mesopotamia is often regarded as the cradle of civilization and it was here that writing, the wheel, and other important technologies were invented.
Top image: The oldest known signed Sumerian tablet that was recently auctioned for a fortune in England. Source: Bloomsbury Auctions
By Ed Whelan