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. The document
records the rations paid out to official
messengers to sustain them on their
Professor Lambert’s translation is provided
Clay tablet, 54x114 mm., with a total of 57 lines
of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse, reverse,
upper edge 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, messengers to sustain them
on their travels.
60 sila of beer, 70 sila of bread: Nur-Shamash,
rider, king’s messenger
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shu-Ashtar, butler
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Dadum, the . . .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Adda-kalla, the . .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Lu-dingirra, the . .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shulgi-nada, the .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Zaliya, the . . .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Abbamu, the . . .
when they went for the king’s offering
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shu-Adad, . . .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Abu-tab, butler
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Utu-barra, butler
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Arshu, the . . .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: . . .
2 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Aku’u . . .
2 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Ur-Igalima, groom
2 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Lu- . . . , . . .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ine . . . , . . .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ilu-kin, throne-
 sila of [beer], 2 sila of bread: Shulgi-ili, the .
[When] he went to Anshebaran-zikum
[2 sila] of beer, 2 sila of bread: Pululu, groom
when he went to Anshebaran-zikum
 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: […] ..ush, the
sick man [when] he went to ….., smashing the
20 sila of beer, 20 sila of bread: Puzur-Sin, son
of the Grand Vizier
5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bead: Sharrum-bani,
king’s messenger when they went to call up the
5 sila of beer, sila of bread: Shulgi-satuni,
king’s messenger when he went for the beer
15 sila of beer, 15 sila of bread: Shu-Sin-
naram-Ashtar, chief singer
5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Nur-ili, king’s
messenger when they went for barley
10 sila of beer, 10 sila of bread: Shu-anna,
vizier, king’s messenger
3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Abbamu, king’s
messenger when they went for the governor’s . .
3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Adad-illati, king’s
messenger when he went for . . .
3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread : Lu-naru’a, the . .
. when he went . . .
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Lugal- . . . when
he went to Girsu
Total: 200[+ . . . .] of beer
Total: 207 sila of bread
Disbursement of the month . . . [ . . . ]
Year: the high priestess of Uruk [was chosen] by
A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a
litre. Beer is obviously measured in this way, but
it is never explained how bread was measured
thus. Perhaps the four, not the baked product,
was measured. The interest in this tablet is that
while it belongs to a well known category of
Messenger Tablets, those published merely list
the men and their rations, while this one gives
the purpose of the trip as well. This is important
material for study of the then current
The bottom of the tablet is missing, and the ends
of some of the lines are illegible on the edge,
also the lines at the bottom of the reverse on the
edge, but, as is clear above, most of the tablet is
clear and legible.