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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - CT.021
Origin: Central Asia
Circa: 2027 BC
Dimensions: 2.40" (6.1cm) high x 1.57" (4.0cm) wide
Collection: Near Eastern
Medium: Clay

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 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 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 control. Most of what we know about the way the culture was run and administered comes from the cuneiform tablets, which record the everyday running of the temple and palaces 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 tablet has 22 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse, reverse and left edge: 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 BC. It is a list of rations issued to official messengers to support them on their trips:


1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Erra-andul, king’s messenger.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: utu-kala, butler.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Azabani, butler, when they went to der.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Shu-Ninshubur, king’s messenger.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Shulgi-ili, king’s messenger.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Ur-Ishkur, king’s messenger when they went from Der to the king.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Pululu, groom when he went to Anshebaran-zikum.

Disbursement of the month Festival of Shulgi. Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Ur was chosen by divination. Left edge: 26th day.

This belongs to the category of what are called “messenger tablets”, listing the provisions issued to official messengers. What is important with this tablet compared with those previously published is that here the purposes of the trips are often seated, an aspect lacking from already published tablets. A sila was a measure or capacity, about .85 of a litre.

This tablet is written in a big, clear scribal hand, and is in excellent condition. - (CT.021)


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