This BBC Future piece by Sophie Hardach has a typically silly thumbsucker premise (“Here’s what they can teach us about crafting an immortal message”), but I liked the focus on one particular beer-brewing scribe. Here’s the start:

More than 2,000 years ago, in a temple in the city of Borsippa in ancient Mesopotamia, in what is now modern-day Iraq, a student was doing his homework. His name was Nabu-kusurshu, and he was training to be a temple brewer. His duties involved brewing beer for religious offerings, but also, learning to keep administrative records on clay tablets in cuneiform script, and preserving ancient hymns by making copies of worn-out tablets. These daily tasks, and his devotion to beer, writing and knowledge, made him part of an extraordinarily resilient literary legacy.

Cuneiform had already been around for roughly 3,000 years by the time Nabu-kusurshu picked up his reed stylus. It was invented by the Sumerians, who initially used it to record rations of food – and indeed, beer – paid to workers or delivered to temples. Over time, the Sumerian texts became more complex, recording beautiful myths and songs – including one celebrating the goddess of brewing, Ninkasi, and her skilled use of “the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound“. When Sumerian gradually slid out of common use, and was replaced by the more modern Akkadian, scribes cleverly wrote long lists of signs in both languages, essentially creating ancient dictionaries, to make sure the wisdom of the oldest tablets would always be understood. 

Nabu-kusurshu’s generation, who would have spoken Akkadian or maybe Aramaic in everyday life, was among the last to use the cuneiform script. But he probably assumed that he was just one ordinary young writer in a long line of writers, preserving cuneiform for many more generations, under the benevolent eye of Nabu, the god of writing and “scribe of the universe”. He faithfully copied the old tablets, noting down for example that a Sumerian sign pronounced “u”, could mean marriage gift, burglar, or buttocks. He wrote on the tablets that he copied them “for his own study”, perhaps as practice or scholarship, and placed them in the temple as an offering.

“He’s learning how to write, and learning these lists, alongside other things, and then dedicating his work to the god Nabu and the temple,” says Jay Crisostomo, a professor of ancient Near Eastern civilisations and languages at the University of Michigan, who has studied Nabu-kusurshu’s tablets in depth.

It was these humble lists, quietly written in the shadow of a giant ziggurat – a pyramid-shaped stepped temple tower – that would earn Nabu-kusurshu immortality.

I’ve reproduced a couple of the links, but there are more at the original article, along with passages on Linear B and Mayan and a continuation about how you too can ensure that your message will last through the ages. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. I’m surprised the article doesn’t mention the meaning of the name Nabû-kuṣuršu : ‘Nabû, strengthen him!’. The wish to the scribe god came true this time, and the boy’s word endured.

    (With the masculine singular imperative kuṣur of the Akkadian verb kaṣāru, ‘to tie, knot; gather, organize; join together, construct (a camp, wall, or fortification); fortify; strengthen (a man) (used of a god in personal names)’. John Huehnergard says the Akkadian is cognate to Hebrew קָצַר qāṣar ‘reap’ (< *‘tie the sheaves’). The Akkadian k is from ‘de-ejectivization’ of Proto-Semitic *q by Geers’ law. There is a tangle of roots of sound and meaning similar to this root among the Semitic languages that is worth investigating and maybe unknotting, but since I am on the road and my ride is about to leave, I must stop here.)

  2. jack morava says

    … You place the fermenting vat, which makes a pleasant sound, appropriately on top of a large collector vat… It is you who pour out the filtered beer of the collector vat; it is like the onrush of the Tigris and the Euphrates…

    Breakfast of champions

  3. Stu Clayton says

    Snap, crackle and pop.

  4. January First-of-May says

    How to write a message to the future: lose your homework someplace where archaeologists could stumble on it later.

    (There’s no mention of Onfim in the article but he definitely sounds like a comparable case.)

    [EDIT: the article is about a different thing but I keep my comment anyway.]

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    Civilisation = Beer.

  6. And malt does more than Milton can
    to justify God’s ways to man.

  7. Or why was Uruk built on Praš?

  8. … in what is now modern-day Iraq …

    Too many editors?

  9. Trond Engen says

    A backlog of several weeks. I won’t be up-to-date anytime soon, but I have to start somewhere, so why not with beer.

    I’ll just note that the hymn to Ninkasi is, maybe as a matter of course, also a recipe, or at least a flow chart, for the art of brewing.

  10. John Cowan says

    Beer = liquid bread, disinfected water.

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