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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0152
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2029 BC
Dimensions: 4.6" (11.7cm) high x 2.28" (5.8cm) 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:

‘It is an administrative document, but a rare one, from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 9th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2029 BC. It gives first details of the materials used in the making of a wooden door, then a list of the craftsmen in the employ of the relevant institution (which is not named, but was no doubt a big temple of the palace), and ends with some bureaucratic details and the date.


1 door with bands of fir, overlaid with bitumen: its height: 4 2/3 cubits, its width: 2 1/3 cubits, its thickness: 1 2/3 [fingers?] with 7….s of the leather worker’s art, one day’s work its bitumen: 15 sila, 3 beams of fir, the…. 6 cubits each, their….28 each, 2 gates of fir, the….of 4 cubits each, 2 gates of fir, the ….of 3 cubits each: their….s 14, 42 beams of fir, 8 cubits each, with their…..3 minas of paint, 6 minas of obsidian, 10 mats, half a sar each [Seal inscription: Lugal-imru’a, scribe, son of Lu-Abu], 19 cabinet makers, 278 carpenters, 19 goldsmiths, 237 metal workers, 18 gem engravers, 422 reed workers, 92 leather workers, 33 carders. One day’s work: a wall of fired bricks. Shu-Sin-shane….put to the account of Shu-Sin. Via Basmum, Shu- Mamma and Adallal. A disbursement. Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, built the temple of Shara in Umma.

There is much that is obscure in this tablet. Other tablets mention doors with just basic information about size, but this appears to be unique for the many details it gives, using measures not in ordinary use at this time, and terms not so far intelligible. The list of craftsmen is also very interesting for the numbers it supplies. The obsidian was used for inlay.’ - (AM.0152)


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