‘Land Between Rivers’: Wine and Trade in Ancient Mesopotamia and the Emergence of the World’s First Writing System

Human beings have been writing things down for a long time. However, there is a distinct difference between alphabets and symbolic writing systems. An alphabet is a system of symbols put together in different arrangements to mimic a spoken tongue. Thus, the modern English alphabet consists of 26 letters or symbols arranged to mimic spoken words. The Proto-Sinaitic script, which emerged out of the Levant around the nineteenth century BC, was the first such alphabet to represent the phenomes of spoken language. But before these alphabets were developed, people used pictographic writing systems to communicate with each other.

The most famous are the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt. Yet this is not the world’s oldest pictographic writing system. That honor goes to the cuneiform script developed in Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq around 3300 BC. And what is striking about the world’s oldest writing system is that it was first designed towards efficient ends, specifically to record details of the trade of goods like wine and beer in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago.[1]

Before assessing where wine fits into all of this, let’s briefly look at the Society which ruled in the region five millennia ago. The Sumerian civilization, which emerged in Mesopotamia in the late fourth and early third millennia BC, is significant in the broader history of humanity. Their Society was based around a few dozen cities settled along the two great rivers that flow through the Fertile Crescent, the Euphrates and the Tigris. Indeed, Mesopotamia means ‘Land Between Rivers’ or ‘Between the Two Rivers.’ For instance, the city of Uruk had 50,000 people by 3000 BC. As a result, many technological developments occurred here. For example, in Sumer, human societies first began pulling wagons with wheels on them using domesticated animals. There was also growing trade between the city-states of Sumer, heavily focused on goods such as oil, cedarwood, pottery, grain, and wine. This trade and the need to record who owed who what for which goods became one of the main driving forces behind the development of the world’s first writing system: cuneiform.[2]

The wine trade in Ancient Sumer was considerable. The preferred drink was beer, but in 3000 BC, the Society comprised one million of the estimated 30 million people living on the planet at that time and therefore consumed substantial amounts of wine. The Sumerians may have also begun the habit already by this time of flavoring wine with herbs, a practice that prevailed in Mesopotamia for centuries to come. However, not all parts of Mesopotamia are optimum for grape cultivation.

The southern regions where some of the biggest cities, such as Uruk and Ur, were located are low-lying and overly humid for effective viticulture to be practiced. As a result, wine was primarily produced in the northern parts of Mesopotamia in Sumerian times. This meant that it was traded extensively down the Euphrates and Tigris rivers from northern cities such as Ninive and Tell Brak to southern cities such as Ur and Uruk. This reliance on wine from the more mountainous northern regions explains why the Mesopotamians came to refer to wine as ‘beer of the mountains.’ Moreover, it was because of this extensive trade in wine from north to south that viticulture influenced the early development of cuneiform writing by the Sumerians.[3]

A cuneiform symbol for a ‘vine’ widely used during the early third millennium BC

Cuneiform began to emerge sometime around 3300 BC. The drive to develop a written form of communication was primarily for commercial purposes. As merchants traded along the complex trade routes between the Sumerian cities of Mesopotamia, the concept of debt emerged more clearly, and there was a need for one merchant to record what another merchant owed him in a manner that was agreeable to both parties.

Accordingly, the Sumerians began recording commodities and their names on baked clay tablets or stones (see Image 1), onto which they inscribed symbols for commodities they were trading, such as oil, grain, pottery, and enslaved people. Wine was one of the goods quickly being recorded on these tablets. The system pre-dates the more famous Egyptian hieroglyphics, which were thought to have been influenced by the Sumerian system.[4]


Example of a mid-third millennium BC Sumerian cuneiform tablet

There were significant reasons why wine was included in the emerging cuneiform pictographic writing system. At the sacred city of Nippur, downstream from Babylon, the main quay of the temple there was named the ‘Quay of the Vine’ in Sumerian times. Moreover, in Sumerian poetry, we find stories of the gods regularly getting drunk on wine in scenes that suggest that intoxication was not simply an accidental by-product of overindulgence but a state that was consciously entered into as part of religious practice rituals.[5]

The pictographic symbols used in cuneiform writing were not always what would automatically jump into the modern mind as a good way of symbolizing the products they were intended to. Moreover, cuneiform was constantly evolving and was used for over 2500 years. Thus, many different symbols were used over time to represent wine or grapes. One early version, widely used by the Sumerians between 3000 BC and 2500 BC, was effectively a word for ‘vine’ and looked like an arrow pointing eastwards (see Image 2).

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Symbols like these gradually began to be represented by much more complex symbols, moving toward letters rather than symbols during the second millennium. Indeed, cuneiform continued to evolve for nearly 3,500 years. The last evidence of its use in the Middle East dates to 75 AD, approximately 3,400 years after it first started to be developed.[6]


The Egyptian hieroglyphic for ‘grapes.’

Knowledge of Cuneiform, including the recording of the Sumerian wine trade 5,000 years ago, was lost for centuries thereafter. European visitors to the Middle East in medieval times and the early modern era often dismissed it when they saw it on walls or on clay tablets which had survived from the era as a species of crude art rather than an actual writing system. An exception to this rule was the Venetian ambassador to Iraq of the late fifteenth century, Giosafat Barbaro, who saw many instances of it at the wine-producing region Shiraz in Persia (no relation to the Syrah varietal!) and was intrigued by what this system of pictographic symbols was meant to convey.

It was, though, not until the late eighteenth century, when the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in Egypt allowed for Egyptian hieroglyphs to be translated for the first time, that orientalists began to show a sustained interest in deciphering Sumerian and Mesopotamian cuneiform. The key to doing so arrived in 1851 after a British archaeologist, Austen Henry Layard, uncovered the great library of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria in northern Mesopotamia.

Ashurbanipal’s library was the greatest repository of knowledge in the world during the seventh century BC, and Layard’s discovery unearthed over 30,000 cuneiform tablets. Within a few years, several European orientalists had deciphered how to read all types of ancient cuneiform.[7] Thus was revealed to modern Society the ancient system of writing which had first been developed to record the simple trading of goods like wine between the cities of Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago. Within a few more years, a tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest epic poem known to humanity, produced by the Sumerians in the third millennium BC, was also translated. In it were revealed scenes of Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, meeting with Siduri, the Sumerian goddess of wine, which further added to our understanding of the centrality of wine to religious life millennia ago. Thus, wine was intrinsically linked with the earliest writing systems to have been developed, and they reveal much about the culture and trade of Sumerian civilization.[8]

This Day in Wine History

January 6, 1478: Uzun Hasan, the Turkic ruler of Aq Qoyunlu, a Muslim state that in the fifteenth century ruled Iraq, Azerbaijan, Transcaucasia, Syria, parts of western Iran, and eastern Turkey, died. His death and the civil war between his sons immediately led the Venetian ambassador to Aq Qoyunlu, Giosafat Barbaro, to flee from the region and head back to Venice. Barbaro’s time in Persia and Mesopotamia was significant in more ways than one. Back in 1474, following his initial arrival, he had visited the ruins of ancient civilizations throughout the region. In Persia at Shiraz, he had discovered evidence of a long-lost writing system that used pictograms. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was looking at cuneiform, the ancient writing system of Mesopotamia, which had also spread to Persia. It was used widely in the third millennium BC Mesopotamia wine trade. It was simply an ironic coincidence that he discovered this at Shiraz. The town’s name bears no relation to the modern Syrah grape (which has become known as Shiraz on account of an Australian pronunciation thereof), though, just to create confusion, Persian Shiraz was also a famed center of viticulture in ancient times, using altogether different grape varietals.[9]

December 3, 1866: Edward Hincks, a prominent Assyriologist, and scholar of cuneiform died. During the early 1850s, Hincks did a huge amount of work to finally decipher the cuneiform writing system used in ancient Mesopotamia. The Sumerians had originally developed about 3300 BC to facilitate the trade of goods like wine in Mesopotamia. In 1857 Hincks and three others were sent samples of various cuneiform by the British Royal Asiatic Society. When the transcriptions they sent back mirrored each other in all main particulars, the society declared cuneiform to have been cracked.[10]

July 5, 1894: Austen Henry Layard died. An archaeologist, politician, historian, and travel writer, he is most famous for having discovered the Library of Ashurbanipal in the remains of the city of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria, in 1851. Ashurbanipal’s library was the greatest in the world in the seventh century BC. In discovering its remains, Layard uncovered enormous amounts of clay tablets containing cuneiform inscriptions, the written language of ancient Mesopotamia. These were then used in subsequent years to decipher cuneiform, a pictographic writing system widely used in ancient times in the Mesopotamian wine trade. Indeed, the trade of wine, oil, and other goods in Mesopotamia in the early third millennium and the need to record trade agreements was one of the driving forces behind the development of the writing system.[11]

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[1] A. R. Millard, ‘The Infancy of the Alphabet’, in World Archaeology, Vol. 17, No. 3 (1986), pp. 390–398.

[2] Harriet E. W. Crawford, Sumer and the Sumerians (Cambridge, 2004); Virginia Schomp, Ancient Mesopotamia: The Sumerians, Babylonians and Assyrians (Alexandria, Virginia, 1993).

[3] ‘Mesopotamia’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Patrick E. McGovern. Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture (Princeton, 2003), chp. 7.

[4] Denise Schmandt-Besserat, ‘An Archaic Recording System and the Origin of Writing’, in Syro Mesopotamian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, (1977), pp. 1–32; Robert K. Englund, ‘Proto-Cuneiform Account-Books and Journals’, in Michael Hudson and Cornelia Wunsch (eds.), Creating Economic Order: Record-keeping, Standardization and the Development of Accounting in the Ancient Near East (Bethesda, Maryland, 2004), pp. 23–46.

[5] ‘Sumer’ in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006); Nicola Laneri, ‘The Impact of Wine Production in the Social Transformation of Northern Mesopotamian Societies during the Third and Second Millennia BCE’, in Die Welt des Orients , Bd. 48, H. 2, Viticulture and Wine in Hittite Anatolia and Its Ancient Near Eastern Context: Philological, Archaeological and Comparative Perspectives (2018), pp. 225–237; Mark Weeden, ‘The Good God, the Wine-god and the Storm-god of the Vineyard’, in Die Welt des Orients , Bd. 48, H. 2, Viticulture and Wine in Hittite Anatolia and Its Ancient Near Eastern Context: Philological, Archaeological and Comparative Perspectives (2018), pp. 330–356

[6] Aage Westenholz, ‘The Graeco-Babyloniaca Once Again’, in Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie, Vol. 97, No. 2 (December, 2007), p. 294; https://www.penn.museum/games/cuneiform.shtml [accessed 21/3/22].

[7] Hugh Murray, Historical Account of Discoveries and Travels in Asia, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time, Volume III (Edinburgh, 1820), pp. 10–16; Nora Benjamin Kubie, Road to Nineveh: The Adventures and Excavations of Sir Austen Henry Layard (London, 1964); Robert Silverberg, The Man Who Found Nineveh: The Story of Austen Henry Layard (New York, 1964).

[8] M. Powell, ‘Wine and the Vine in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Cuneiform Evidence’, in P. E. McGovern, S. J. Fleming and S. H. Katz (eds.), The Origins and Ancient History of Wine (Philadelphia, 1996), pp. 97–122; http://cecilskotnes.com/the-origin-of-winethe-epic-of-gilgamesh/ [accessed 22/3/22]

[9] Hugh Murray, Historical Account of Discoveries and Travels in Asia, from the Earliest Ages to the Present Time, Volume III (Edinburgh, 1820), pp. 10–16; Reza Rezazadeh Langaroodi and Farzin Negahban, ‘Āq-qūyūnlū’, in Wilferd Madelung and Farhad Daftary (eds.), Encyclopaedia Islamica (Leiden, 2015); Alexis Lichine, Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits (London, 1967), p. 495.

[10] M. L. Bierbrier, ‘Hincks, Edward’, in Brian Harrison and H.C.G. Matthew (eds.), The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 60 Vols. (Oxford, 2004).

[11] Nora Benjamin Kubie, Road to Nineveh: The Adventures and Excavations of Sir Austen Henry Layard (London, 1964); Robert Silverberg, The Man Who Found Nineveh: The Story of Austen Henry Layard (New York, 1964).

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