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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet in Clay Envelope
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet in Clay Envelope - LK.174
Origin: Central Asia
Circa: 2027 BC
Dimensions: 1.8" (4.6cm) high x 1.6" (4.1cm) wide
Collection: Near Eastern Art
Medium: Clay

Additional Information: K
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 it’s 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 decipherment and translation of cuneiform, to examine and process the information on these tablets. His analysis is presented below.

This is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the second year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty, c. 2027 B.C. The document was written twice: once on the tablet, and once on the outside of the envelope. The purpose was security. Tablet and Envelope were written and fitted together at one time, but it slowly dried out. If any dispute arose over the matter, the tablet with envelope intact would be taken to the presence of a magistrate or other responsible figure, and in his presence the envelope would be chipped off, and the wording on the tablet was binding. If someone chipped off the envelope privately and tried to put another one on, the new, soft clay of this envelope would chip of as it shrank while the tablet did not. No doubt something was used to coat the tablet to prevent the envelope from sticking to it when it was first applied, but we do not know what it was. But in this case, something went wrong. The obverse of the envelope was crushed and pressed down on the tablet inside so that part of it adheres and cannot be removed. So the writing on the obverse (the substance of the document) is so far not capable of being translated. What remains is rare and cannot so far be restored from other complete documents of the period. The reverse, however, is fully preserved an clear:

Month: Nig-Enlil, 13th day at dusk,

Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination.

Inanna was the Sumerian goddess of love and war: a strange combination. Another, additional means of security was a seal impression on the envelope. Only the owner of the seal could repeat this, so any unofficial change was impossible. In this case, cylinder seal impressions occur on all edges and on both obverse and reverse, where the writing goes over them. The seal shows a seated deity and a minor goddess introducing a human worshipper (the seal owner). The seal inscription names the owner, but nowhere is it completely clear, but some remains: ‘Anu….., scribe, servant of the god….”. - (LK.174)


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