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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0121
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2027 BC
Dimensions: 2.72" (6.9cm) high x 1.73" (4.4cm) 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:

‘This is written in a fine, clear scribal hand, and the tablet is in perfect condition. The text is an administrative document from the 3rd day of a month not yet placeable in sequence, of the second year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2027 B.C. It is a listing of rations paid out to official messengers:


5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Puzur-Sin, son of the grand vizier. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr A’ilisu, king’s messenger. 10 sila of bread: the king’s soldiers when they went to call up people to thresh sesame. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Lugal-nisage, king’s messenger when he went for barley of the convent women. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Iddi’ilum, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Ur-Shara, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Nur-Ishtar, king’s messenger when they went to the governor. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Ur-gigir, king’s messenger when he went for ghee. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Lugal-amar-ku, the….man when he went for pulverized salt. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Daki-ilum, barber when he went for cornel twigs. Disbursement of the month Shuniggal. Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination. Left edge: 3rd day.

The sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. How bread was so measured is never explained. Perhaps the flour was measured, not the baked product. While it is rare and very interesting to have the purposes of these official trips stated, they are often not self-explanatory. Why should one man go for salt? Was there not a regular trade in the material? We can hope that with more publication and study some of these problems will be solved. Also, would the soldiers be pleased to have bread and no beer?’ - (AM.0121)


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