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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0053
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2029 BC
Dimensions: 2.72" (6.9cm) high x 1.93" (4.9cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings
Condition: Extra Fine

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. His scanned analysis is presented here. This document comes from a textile factory and lists cloth items with their weight.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet, 69x49mm., with 18 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse and reverse, tablet written in a large, clear, scribal hand, and in very good condition: only one small gash on the obverse. An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 9th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the Dynasty, c. 2029 B.C. It comes from a textile factory and lists garments and other cloth items made, with their weights. Quite few of the terms are not yet understood and so cannot be translated at the moment.


4 . . . of “gi” wool

8 . . . of “gi” wool: their weight; 10 minas, 15 shekels

2 . . . of . . .

. . . fine quality “gi” wool

10 . . . of “gi” wool

2 . . . of “gi” wool: their weight 12 ½ minas, 7 shekels set aside for the chariot of (the god) Ashgi and . . .

1 . . . garment . . . : it’s weight ½ a minas An-zamu weighed, from Mr Ilak

Month: plough

Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, built the temple of Shara in Umma

Quite a few of the terms for garments or cloth pieces given in this listing are known elsewhere, but their meaning is so far unknown. Wool is a common material for cloth. Cotton was unknown, and linen was very expensive, though known and used.

There were 60 shekels in a mina, and a mina was about 500 grams. - (AM.0053)


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