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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - LK.142
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2030 BC
Dimensions: 3.50" (8.9cm) high x 2.05" (5.2cm) wide
Collection: Near Eastern
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 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:

‘Clay tablet, 89 x 52 mm., with 26 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse and reverse, written in a large, fine scribal hand, and excellently preserved. An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 8th year of Shu- Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2030 B.C. It is an account of the expenditure of barley. A gur was a measure of capacity, used for barley, and about 250 litres. Barley was the regular crop on the irrigated land of Sumer, and served in most cases for our money.


190 gur of barley: a consignment of barley from it:

Seed grain for 60 iku f land: 6 gur

fodder for cattle: 6 gur

wages for hired men: 12 gur

1 ox for sale: 6 gur

80 sheep for sale: 40 gur expenditures for 1 year

10 gur for beer and bread: the gods’ banquet

1 gur: payment to the priest

72 gur: barley rations for temple slaves

2 talents of wool in 12 mina bundles: sale value 10 gur wool rations for temple slaves

12 gur barley rations for Mashtum, house- born slave

Total: 174 gur

A disbursement: 44 gur surplus

Accounts for priestly goods, via Ili-bitim

Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, built a magnificent barge for Enil and Ninlil


The arithmetic is not quite accurate. The total adds up to 175, not 174 as stated. The priest’s 1 gur was apparently forgotten. And 175 subtracted from 190 yields 15, not 44! Since only scribes could read and write, perhaps they relied on professional loyalty to avoid exposure of such errors. But the details of kinds of uses for barley do look entirely correct for Sumerian life at this time.’ - (LK.142)


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