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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0058
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2034 BC
Dimensions: 3.5" (8.9cm) high x 1.85" (4.7cm) 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. His scanned analysis is presented here. This document records the rations handed out to official messengers but it is more significant than most of the ‘messenger tablets’ so far published. It not only provides the names and the rations of the men sent, in some cases it also states the purpose of their mission.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet, 89x47mm., with 23 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 4th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2034 B.C. It is a list of rations issued to official messengers. The tablet is written in bold, clear hand, but the bottom is chipped and some of the writing on the reverse is rubbed. However, most can be read:


1 . . . , 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mashum, vizier, king’s messenger

When he went from Der to the king

1 . . . , 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Ku-Nanna, vizier, king’s messenger

1 . . . , 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Darak-illi, vizier, king’s messenger

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Lu-Nin [ . . . ] when he went to Der

1 sila of soup, 1 [fish]: Silli-Adad, [king’s] messenger

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Puzer- . . . , king’s messenger when they went to Kimash


Month Gisigga

Year: after Simanum was destroyed

19th day

A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre, obvious for measuring beer, but not for bread; Perhaps the flour rather than the baked product was measured. This “Messenger Tablet” is more important than those previously published, in that it gives not only the names and rations of the men sent, but also the purposes of their going in quite a few cases. - (AM.0058)


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