A manager of a palatial brewery at Šubat-Enlil  in ancient northern Syria.



The northernmost archive comes from Šubat-Enlil ( today Tell Leilan), in the upper valley of the Habur. Identified with the capital of the kingdom of Upper Mesopotamia of King Samsî-Addu (1796-1775), Šubat-Enlil occupies 90 ha surrounded by 3.7 km of ramparts 5 to 15 m high[1]. In 1991, in a building of the lower town, interpreted as a residence of 12 rooms, a group of 651 tablets and fragments were discovered, the majority of which makes up an archive of brewery records covering the years 1770 to 1766.

Its significance is exceptional. This archive is homogeneous : same products and by-products (raw grains, intermediate brewing ingredients, beers), same activity (beer brewing), same place (a brewing workshop[2]), and same entire period of 20 months. The detailed account of the brewing ingredients supplied to the brewery and used for the brews offers a unique opportunity to follow the day-to-day management and operation of a Mesopotamian brewery of the 18th century BC.

Most of the tablets, dated according to a known and deciphered timeline comput specific to the northern kingdoms, show an exceptional chronological continuity[3]. The bookkeeping records use a measurement system (dry/liquid volumes) whose relative and absolute values are also known. In short, the structure of the documents and their data are perfectly understandable. The archive only needs to be studied from the point of view of the brewery and its history.

The whole set consists of 80 receipts of barley + brewing ingredients, and 447 daily beer delivery notes for the tenants and guests of the palace. This numerical discrepancy shows that the brewery does not stock up on ingredients every day, but delivers fresh beer every day. Mutu-ramê is the central character of this device. He controls the receipt of raw materials. He keeps a record of the beer delivered. He coordinates the activity of the brewery. His name appears at the bottom of the 447 delivery documents. We do not know whether his management includes brewer's responsibilities, as technical operations were rarely written down or described at that time.

The two components "grain reception/ingredients preparation/brewing" and "deliveries by type of beer" are presented and summarised before drawing some conclusions.

The receipts shed light on the preparation and management of the brewing ingredients from a qualitative and quantitative point of view.

Barley and malt come either from a threshing floor (maškanum) or from designated suppliers (Tateia 10 times,Šamaš-dajãn 1 time). This threshing floor is a ground area that is used once a year to thresh the ears of grain or to dehull the barley with a tribulum. By extension, the threshing floor is the appropriate place to process and store the grain.

But in our documents, the term maškanum is systematically associated with malt deliveries. The facility could also be used as a malting area: a flat and clean area, exposed to the sun and suitable for the germination of barley as well as the drying of green malt.


Contraintes du maltage
5 m2 /100 litres of barley = ratio Surface for germination/Initial volume of raw grains. This ratio marshalls also the drying of the green malt under the sun.
2 m2 are needed to spread out 100 litres of barley in a 5 cm deep layer. Moistening and germination increase the whole volume (growth of radicles and plumules, swelling of the grains) by 250%*. The layer must be spread further to maintain its optimum thickness (5 cm) and ensure a proper ventilation of the germinating grains.
De Clerck 1948 Cours de Brasserie, vol. I p. 174.


Malting requires large surfaces. 600 l of malted barley, quantity regularly delivered to Mutu-ramê, require at least 15 m2. The complete malting of a batch of raw grains (barley or wheat) takes about a week. The periods of important and frequent deliveries of malt (1320 litres between the 31st of month II and the 4th of month III for example) imply the reservation of a total surface of about 33 m2, to ensure the rotation of the batches of grains to be malted every week. Large supplies of malt can be perfectly well stored when moisture and mice are avoided[4].

However, the solution opted for at Šubat-Enlil favours the frequent supplies of malt. The economic organisation explains that the malt comes alternately from a threshing (and malting?) floor and from suppliers like Tateia, probably a maltster or at least a person to whom the palace entrusts stocks of grain to be malted and to supply the palace brewery. Mutu-ramê subcontracts the production of its malt and diversifies its sources. As a manager of the palace brewery, Mutu-ramê never runs out of grain. But he must also be sure he never runs out of beer.


This efficient brewery manager provides beer for various groups. Its permanent " customer " is the royal harem. On average he supplies between 11.6 and 36 litres per day depending on the month, which corresponds to 10-30 people (based on 1.2 litres/day). Nurse, carpenters, cooks, bearers of the royal arms, various individuals are supplied with a regularity that presupposes their attachment to the permanent staff of the Šubat-Enlil palace. The messengers of the palace come and go, being present a few days a month; with the exception of months I and XI (limmu Zabrabu) with deliveries of 48 and 24 litres/day respectively.

Labour inspectors check the quality and conformity of barley or malt deliveries with the bookkeeping records. They operate on the threshing floor, near the granaries. From the volumes of beer distributed to them, it can be deduced that their work is more active between months XII and I of the Assyrian year (February-April), most certainly related to the cultivation and harvesting of barley. They check the fields before harvest to calculate and delineate their surface areas, forecast the yields, the number of harvesters and thus estimate the quantities of grain that will have to be delivered to the palace after the harvest.

The diplomacy of the palace causes for the brewery an additional supply of beer to delegations, bearers of arms and messengers (table below for months I and XI of limmu Zabrabu). A tablet discovered in the acropolis of Shubat-Enlil mentions beer and bread given to a messenger from Ešnunna[5].

The unhoped-for discovery of a clay token bearing the inscription « 1,2 litre of superior beer (to) royal servants » indicates that it serves as a ration coupon for the token bearer: one comes to exchange it on the spot (the palace brewery?) for 1,2 litre of beer. This exceptional discovery confirms the living character of the brewery's archives. It should be noted that the inscription itself presupposes that the token reaches the hands of a scribe able of reading it: it bears no pictogram or symbol easy to imitate.

The palace comes alive, the brewery takes its place among the palace's economic activities. A glance at the delivery table restores its rightful scale. At the peak of its production, the brewery delivers barely 100 litres/day (limmu Ahuwaqar month I). The difficulty of the task assigned to Mutu-ramê lies in the heterogeneity of its "clientele" and the diversity of its sources of supply, more than in the volume of beer to be brewed. Mutu-ramê receives barley, malt and semi-finished brewing ingredients: sun (wort), titab (malted bread), agarinnu (sourdough). What technical or economic constraints prevent Mutu-ramê from preparing them itself? Complete subcontracting?The lack of a very detailed intermediate accountancy? Mutu-ramê also receives beer (kaš) which seems to supplement its own production.

A close examination of the documents shows that the brewery's deliveries are not limited to the rations accounted for. In view of the quantities received of barley and malt, the beer production far exceeds the low recorded volumes of daily rations. The total malt+barley received for the 2nd fortnight of month V (without taking into account possible shortfalls) is equal to 1800 litres (600+480+600+120). Applying the barley/beer ratio of Chagar Bazar for superior beer, these grains produce 1800 litres of superior beer (ratio 1:1). On the peak day of the same period, the brewery delivers 15 litres/day, or just over 228 litres per fortnight[6]. Such a discrepancy, even weighted by the time lag between the days of restocking and the daily deliveries of finished beer, can only be explained by a distribution of beer that goes beyond the palace and/or accounted for by archives that have now disappeared.

An impressive document signed by Mutu-ramê breaks down the brewery's barley consumption on a monthly basis. Only month I (Niqmum) is detailed by beneficiaries. All others give only a grand total. The calculated quantities for month I do not agree with the totals on the delivery tablets. It seems that the breakdown of Mutu-ramê is an internal document of the brewery recapitulating the quantities of barley actually consumed during 9 months.




Barley (litres)

Type of beer


limmu Aššur-taklalu



upper grade

no mention




no mention (KAŠ)







limmu Zabzabu









chair bearers










royal harem





no mention





















Bookkeeping breakdown monthly barley consumption according to Mutu-ramê's accounts.


The archives of Šubat-Enlil offer a much more vivid picture of the Mesopotamian brewery. One can see the supply constraints linked to agricultural cycles, storage requirements and the diversification of ingredient sources. They are linked to daily delivery requirements: the brewery must provide appropriate qualities of beer, according to specific ration quotas. It must also adapt to the seasonal activities of the population and its fermented beverage needs.

The majority of the tablets discovered on the acropolis of Tell Leilan record deliveries of beer (good or superior), flour and grain. 12 of them concern the supply of the king's banquet, 8 others the supply of messengers or lists of beneficiaries[7]. Unfortunately, this set of tablets and the archive of Mutu-ramê are not contemporary. The production figures of the brewing workshop of Shubat-Enlil and those of the beers received much later on by the beneficiaries of the palace cannot be cross-checked.

Are there two brewing and distribution channels for beer within the city? One for the lower town (brewery of Mutu-ramê), another for the acropolis, the world of the temple and palace, of the officials and the administration: seals and sealed tablets testify it[8].

The lower town is home to a mixed active population and merchants. Tell Leilan has been occupied since the beginning of the 3rd millennium. In the 19th century, the lower town is a vast Assyrian trading post (karum) and a stopover on the trade route to Cappadocia. Beer is obviously consumed here a lot, which explains why the brewery's production far exceeds the rations for the palace staff. Mutu-ramê also serves other "customers" of the lower town.

The sophisticated economic and technical management of Mutu-ramê modifies the often very simplistic picture of the brewery in ancient times. Here the brewery appears free of domestic chores, perfectly organised and adapted to the regular production of the various kinds of beer. It is necessary to consider that these beer brewing workshops are innovative places, an answer to two very powerful constraints:

A) brew standard beers (ration beer) but also special beers (messengers, royal family, envoys from other palaces in the region).

B) account for and monitor the use of grain throughout all the brewing processing operations, so that the grain and malt stocks cover the brewery's needs throughout the year.

The documents show a manager operating several sources of supply, several means of storage, keeping his accounts of various raw materials, ingredients and by-products, delivering beers of various qualities according to different rhythms and multiple social requirements. Every day, Mutu-ramê has to solve a real technical puzzle!

However, the beer production monitored by Mutu-ramê remains modest compared to the huge volumes of beer brewed by the large urban complexes during the Ur III dynasty (2112-2004 BC) in South Mesopotamia. There, the brewery managers produced and distributed beer by hundreds of hectolitres every day. These managers had the overwhelming task of concentrating important supply and storage facilities of brewing ingredients for the breweries of the large Mesopotamian cities. The scales of production and the constraints of economic organisation have in turn influenced brewing patterns and techniques.


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[1] Harvey Weiss H. et al. 1990, 1985 Excavations at Tell Leilan, Syria, American Journal of Archaeology 94, 534 sq.

[2] The grouping of all the tablets (accounts of the brewing ingredients received/prepared + deliveries of the beers) into archive jars in the same room of the building in Šubat-Enlil correlates Management+Brewing of the ingredients with Supply of the beer types. The whole beer production process was supervised by the same person, Mutu-ramê  himself. The combination of the two types of documents does not imply that the physical places of production are identical. Malting area, ingredient production area, beer brewing area, beer stores, distribution of beer jars are all separate locations.

[3] It is generally agreed that these archives were alive at the time of their burial: clay tablets carefully arranged in jars, which are themselves stored in a single place, room no. 12 of the Šubat Enlil palace.

[4] Van De Mierop 1994, The Tell Leilan Tablets 1991 : a preliminary report, Orientalia Nova Series 63. The author makes a small mistake p. 315. Dry malt keeps very well. The germination phase is only transitory before drying (under the sun or in one oven). Mutu-ramê could malt large volumes of grain in advance and store them safely. The risk of defective preservation of the malt is not technical but economic: allocating part of the barley stocks in advance to malting represents a cost (malting takes a week and employs people), but above all irreversibly transforms the grain. Malted grains can no longer germinate and be used as seeds when needed.

[5] Harvey Weiss et al. 1990, op. cit. p. 565.

[6] Another example: between the 3rd and 6th of month VIII, Mutu-ramê receives 1116 litres of malt. On the same days, it delivers only 152 litres of superior beer.

[7] Harvey Weiss et al. 1990, op. cit. p. 569, 576-577.

[8] Harvey Weiss et al. 1990, op. cit. p. 566-597.

06/06/2014  Christian Berger