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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0119
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2027 BC
Dimensions: 3.54" (9.0cm) high x 1.77" (4.5cm) 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:

‘This tablet is nicely inscribed with a fine art, and is in good condition save for a big chip off the left-hand side of the obverse. The text is an administrative document dated to the 17th day of an unidentified month of the second year of Amar-Suena, third king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2027 B.C. It is a long listing of rations paid out to official messengers.


3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Lulu-bani, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Shulgi-urumu, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Puzur-Sin, king’s messenger when they went to Der. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr […]- ili, king’s messenger. [3 sila] of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr [….]…, cup-bearer. [3 sila of ] beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr […]…, cup-bearer [when] they went from [Der] to the king. [5 sila] of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Ahuni, king’s messenger when he went for sesame. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Ur-mes, king’s messenger when he went for flour from malted barley. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Shuqatum, king’s messenger when he went to take the runaway men, slaves of Ninhursag. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Lugal-ezen, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Ur-darshum, king’s messenger when they went to call up the palace men, grooms on the Mama-sharrat canal. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Zallum, king’s messenger when he went to shear sheep. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Pululu, groom when he went to Anshebaran-Zikum. Disbursement of the month Barley Harvest. Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination. Left edge: 17th day.

A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. Barley was the normal crop in Sumer, and it provided the basics of life: food (bread) and drink (beer). The messengers apparently lived on these. But how the bread was measured by capacity is not explained. Was the flour measured, not the baked bread? Curiously, while the rations tend to be 5, 3, 2 or 1 sila of beer, the bread regularly matches the number save for 3 sila of beer, to which only 2 sila of beer was assigned. We cannot ask them why!’ - (AM.0119)


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