In the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk, residents enjoyed many benefits of modern life. The city, located in modern-day Iraq, was home to massive ziggurats that would rival any of today’s modern skyscrapers for sheer monumentality. People in Uruk exchanged goods for money, played board games, and sent each other letters on clay tablets using a writing system called cuneiform. They were also paid for their labor in beer. We know this because pay stubs were incredibly common documents at the time, and one such pay stub (pictured above) is now in the possession of the British Museum.
Writing in New Scientist, Alison George explains what’s written on the 5,000-year-old tablet: “We can see a human head eating from a bowl, meaning ‘ration,’ and a conical vessel, meaning ‘beer.’ Scattered around are scratches recording the amount of beer for a particular worker.” Beer wages were by no means limited to Mesopotamia. In ancient Egypt, there are records of people receiving beer for their work—roughly 4 to 5 liters per day for people building the pyramids. And in the Middle Ages, we have several records of the great fourteenth century poet Geoffrey Chaucer being paid in wine. Richard II generously gave Chaucer an annual salary that included a “tonel” of wine per year, which was roughly 252 gallons.
These salaries weren’t just about keeping workers drunk so they would be more compliant. In the ancient world, beer was a hearty, starchy brew that could double as a meal. And during Chaucer’s time, people believed that wine brought good health—which may not have been strictly accurate but was certainly a lure at a time when the Black Death was decimating the populations of Europe.
Even today, some employers are still paying workers in alcohol. In 2013, Amsterdam started a controversial program to help alcoholics get their lives together by paying them beer to pick up trash. And of course, many tech companies offer employees free booze on Friday afternoons as a perk. Thanks to one miraculously preserved pay stub, we now know that bribing employees with beer is a practice as old as employment itself.