The 3in (7cm) square clay tablet, recording beer production in Uruk, c.3100BC, and the name of the Sumerian scribe Kushim, can claim to include the earliest known record of any personal name in history.
It has an estimate of £70,000-90,000 at Bloomsbury Auctions’ sale on July 8 titled The History of Western Script: A Selection from the Schøyen Collection.
Five millennia ago, Uruk (modern-day Warka in southern Iraq) was the largest city-state in the world supporting perhaps 50,000-80,000 inhabitants. A by-product of social and economic development was record keeping via proto-writing systems and the creation of a government archive that was housed at the temple to the goddess Inanna.
The pictographs on the tablet show the scale of local beer production: from an ear of barley, to a brick-building with a chimney that might be the brewery itself, and finally a jar signifying the finished product. Dots and other impressions indicate vast quantities: some 134,813 ‘litres’ of barley to be delivered over 37 months.
To the top-left corner are the symbols for the sounds ‘Ku’ and ‘Sim’ that have caught the imagination in recent years.
Kushim is probably the name of the government scribe responsible and, as noted by Harari in Sapiens, this apparent signature can claim to be the first personal name of any human in history. Kushim’s hand is known from 77 other tablets from the Inanna temple, although this is thought to be the only one privately owned.
The tablet was first acquired in the 1950s by the Basel collectors Hans Erlenmeyer (1900-67) and his wife Marie- Louise Erlenmeyer (1912-97).
It was last offered at auction at Christie’s in 1988 before the contents had been deciphered (it was offered simply as an ‘administrative tablet’) and sold at £24,300. In 1993 the tablet was bought from London dealership Quaritch by Norwegian businessman Martin Schøyen (b.1940).
Schøyen is owner of one of the largest private manuscript collections in the world, mostly located in Oslo and London. The sale of 80 lots will mark the collector’s 80th birthday.
Bloomsbury specialist Timothy Bolton told ATG: “This is a world-class item, of fundamental importance for the history of writing, and in flawless condition. It is not a simple task to assign an estimate or even find any comparables in the market.
“Prices for tablets with the Erlenmeyer provenance have been consistently high in recent years, and we have stayed close to those results, with the hope that the market sets a new benchmark on July 8.”