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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0197
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2033 BC
Dimensions: 2.95" (7.5cm) high x 1.89" (4.8cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings

Location: Great Britain
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Sumerian cuneiform is one of the earliest known forms of written expression. First appearing in the 4th millennium BC in what is now Iraq, it was dubbed cuneiform (‘wedge-shaped’) because of the distinctive wedge form of the letters, created by pressing a reed stylus into wet clay. Early Sumerian writings were essentially pictograms, which became simplified in the early and mid 3rd millennium BC to a series of strokes, along with a commensurate reduction in the number of discrete signs used (from c.1500 to 600). The script system had a very long life and was used by the Sumerians as well as numerous later groups – notably the Assyrians, Elamites, Akkadians and Hittites – for around three thousand years. Certain signs and phonetic standards live on in modern languages of the Middle and Far East, but the writing system is essentially extinct. It was therefore cause for great excitement when the ‘code’ of ancient cuneiform was cracked by a group of English, French and German Assyriologists and philologists in the mid 19th century AD. This opened up a vital source of information about these ancient groups that could not have been obtained in any other way.

Cuneiform was used on monuments dedicated to heroic – and usually royal – individuals, but perhaps its most important function was that of record keeping. The palace-based society at Ur and other large urban centres was accompanied by a remarkably complex and multifaceted bureaucracy, which was run by professional administrators and a priestly class, all of whom were answerable to central court control. Most of what we know about the way the culture was run and administered comes from cuneiform tablets, which record the everyday running of the temple and palace complexes in minute detail, as in the present case. The Barakat Gallery has secured the services of Professor Lambert (University of Birmingham), a renowned expert in the decipherment and translation of cuneiform, to examine and process the information on these tablets. The following is a transcription of his analysis of this tablet:

‘An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 5th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c.2033 B.C. It is a record of barley and wool issued to one person as remuneration:


1 person: 20 sila of barley, 2 minas of wool: Mannum-la’eshin, son of Ishlamum, ox- herder, attendant of the plow oxen from Lugal-igihush, manager. Total: 1 male person, 20 sila of barley, 2 minas of wool. The barley: 20 sila for 1 month. The wool: 2 minas for 1 year. An account: confirmed in the matter of minas Lugal-igi-hush received. Via Ur-mes, governor. From the month Festival of Shulgi. To the month Barley Harvest: 6 months. Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, built the west wall, which keeps the Tidnum Amorites at bay.

This is a rare type of document, because it deals with commodities issued to a single person as remuneration from the state. The sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre, so the man got roughly 1.7 litres a month, not a huge amount if, as is probable, he had a family to support. But he may have had use of a piece of irrigated land on which he grew crops for his own consumption. The mina was a measure of weight, about 500 grams, so the man got about a kilo of wool for the year. It was meant for clothing since linen, the other material for clothing in this civilisation, was expensive. It does not follow that that the man took the wool home and his wife had to spin the fleeces into wool thread, and then weave cloth. There were factories in this civilisation employing hundreds of women engaged in processing wool into thread and cloth of half a dozen carefully distinguished qualities and types. It is quite possible this man would have collected the weight in finished cloth from a government factory.’ - (AM.0197)


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