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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0059
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2029 BC
Dimensions: 1.97" (5.0cm) high x 1.61" (4.1cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings
Style: Cuneiform
Condition: Fine

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. His scanned analysis is presented here. This document records the expenditures of a large economic organization, perhaps a temple or city administration.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet, 50x41mm., with 12 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse and reverse. There is a little rubbing of some signs, but everything can be read and understood.


18 skins of “white” sheep

3 minas of uriyahu-stone

45 smiths for one day, present for the day when the door of the temple of Nin-isina was overlaid with copper

Via Ur-Baba

Disbursement of month Kirsi’ak

Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur,

Built the temple of Shara in Umma

This is a record of expenditures at some large economic organization perhaps a temple or a city administration. The first two items are unexplained. What use were the skins and precious stones put to? But the last item is rare and important. A temple door of the temple of the goddess Nin-isina, patron god of the town Isin, was to be overlaid with copper plating, and for this purpose no less that 45 smiths were mustered. No doubt it was essential to have the metal melted and poured over the door in a non-stop process, so the large number of skilled men was needed to keep up the process until it was finished.

The date is the 9th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2029 B.C. - (AM.0059)


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