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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0148
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2029 BC
Dimensions: 5.08" (12.9cm) 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:

‘There is a spot of damage to the upper right-hand obverse corner, and a patch on the right-hand edge of the reverse, but most is well preserved. The writing is in a large, clear scribal hand. The text is 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 BC. It lists men’s names in groups as recipients of official hand-outs, with a group leader specified for each group. Each such name is introduced by a single vertical wedge, which we render by insetting. Some names are also introduced with a small horizontal wedge, the meaning of which is not clear. We put a dot in its place:


Ali-i[li] Shulgi-.[…] * Ba.[…..] Ku-elak * Turam-ili * Bishe’a Enu’a Ilum-asu 8 Ilum- asu took Ur-Dumuzi Nene Basum Scribe: Umkin… Nuhilum Adallal Bur-Mamma 7 Shutpil-ili took Ashtar-nuda Adallal * Shu- Ashtar Qurudsa Head sailor Ilum-rabi, potter Puzur-Lisi, bird catcher 7 Adallal took * Abushu[…] * Ipqusha * Ela-nu’id Shu- Mamma Idarrak 5 Shelibum took 27 Men who received bread Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, built the temple of Shara in Umma.’

While chattel slavery was rare in Suma at this time, a large number of the population were employed by the state and official agencies, often drawing food as payment. This tablet lists the names of four gangs of men so fed, and the names of the person responsible for picking up and distributing their rations. Since no month is named this arrangement apparently lasted for the whole year. Very few professions are specified, the rest were no doubt agricultural labourers.’ - (AM.0148)


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