Alas, that such a seminal document is in private ownership.
It hails all the way from . Ur, that is. Once a great city near the mouth of the Euphrates, the metropolis was watched over by the god of the moon in what is now Iraq. In our palindromic equivalent before Christ – the 21st century BC – the people of Ur built a ziggurat, a terraced pyramid, a beautifully preserved shrine to the moon god whose name means: ‘house whose name creates terror.’
Dr Tom L Lee, a Michigan collector of historical documents, says it was excavations prior to the 1920s which yielded this possible gem.
He claims to have bought the writings – a stone tablet crammed with ancient cuneiform – from the grandson of one of the chief archaeologists on site prior to 1920.
Should its provenance be genuine, this is a 4,000 year old receipt for a drink of beer.
Dr Lee translates the writings thus: “Ur-Amma acknowledges receiving from his brewer, Alulu, 5 sila (about 4 1/2 liters) of the ‘best’ beer.”
The collector tells The Free Library: ” As literate scribes were few and far between 4,000 years ago, only very important things and events were memorialized in writing. Beer played a very different role in ancient Ur, and in other contemporaneous cultures, than it does in the present world. then, beer was also a principal food source, a source of nourishment.”
Beer in those days was thick, and men drank it through a straw so they didn’t have to confront the bitter solids left over from the fermentation process. Egypt, Greece, Babylon, they were all dependent on it: and while the Romans preferred their wine, Mediaeval people were back to beer as a safe staple drink.
Before the 15th century brewers in England were not allowed to produce ale and beer together; beer had hops and ale did not;but by the time we meet our woman between the lines, ale and beer seem all one.
The strains of an old diary floated past me yesterday: our talk channel, BBC Radio 4, is serialising it in its Woman’s Hour slot this week. And for a moment I could not work out who was writing.
I should have known. Monday evening: and Samuel Pepys and his wife Elisabeth are on the road, stopping for sustenance at an inn. And I chuckled: not because of what Pepys wrote, but because of what he didn’t write.
The pair stop at Buntingford, where “my wife, by drinking some cold beer, being hot herself, presently after ‘lighting, begins to be sick, and became so pale, and I alone with her in a great chamber there, that I thought she would have died…”
I, too, have become mightily sick after drinking cold beer.
Pepys continues the tale of poor Elisabeth, the unfortunate victim of a surfeit of beer: “….and so in great horror, and having a great tryall of my true love and passion for her, called the mayds and mistresse of the house, and so with some strong water (spirits), and after a little vomit, she came to be pretty well again.”
The age-old story.I can just imagine Sam Pepys, flapping about his wife after too much beer, trying his very best to make her well again.
Most of what we know of beautiful Elisabeth Pepys comes from Sam. And there’s precious little: yet what a lovely, strange, chaotic relationship they did have, what with Sams weaknesses with the household maid, and his idiosyncratic, passionate relationship with this woman whom he married when she was just 14 years old, daughter of a French Catholic-turned-protestant.
Her actions are often erratic: writing down intimate details about Sam – in English, not French – so that all the servants might read and share; Sam refers to her ‘little angry talks’. They separated very soon after their marriage, coming back together just before Sam started the diaries.
Yet they have moments which are so exuberant their joy is infectious, like the day he arrives home to find her ‘extraordinary fine’, “with her flowered tabby gown that she made two years ago, now laced exceeding pretty; …” and they go out in the carriage to swank. “I did not see any coach more pretty, though more gay, than ours, all the day,” he writes happily.
His mentions of Elisabeth cease abruptly. She died suddenly of typhoid in 1669, and left Sam in pieces. His letters record him apologising for not attending meetings for a month after her death, and failing to answer letters.
Poor Sam. And poor Elisabeth: frustrated historians have ever since battled to put together the pieces and reveal the woman behind Pepys’s lines, tantalising as his passing mentions are.
But instead we are left with an unusually vivid shadow.
It’s enough to persuade me to read the diaries all over again.