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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0186
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2035 BC
Dimensions: 3.07" (7.8cm) high x 1.73" (4.4cm) 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:

‘Excellent condition. An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 3rd year of Shu- Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c.2035 B.C. It is a listing of rations issued to official messengers in a particular month of that year.


1/2 roast lamb, 3 sila of soup and 3 fish: Lugal-ebgal. 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Zuza, vizier, king’s messenger when they went to call up men to look for the sheep. 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Abu’tab, vizier, king’s messenger. 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Ur-Enlilla, vizier, king’s messenger when they went to raise the water. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Apil- Sin, king’s messenger when he went from Susa to the king. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Shu- su, king’s messenger. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Shu-Ashtar, king’s messenger when they went from Der to the king. Disbursement of the month Barley Harvest. Year: Simanum was destroyed. 6th day.

A sila was a measure of capacity: about .85 of a litre. Why the first named man has such special treatment is not at all clear. That he is given no title suggests that he was too well known to need titles. The years were named after what was considered to be the most important event, as the year progressed. Simanum was a small kingdom south of Lake Van, and its overthrow by a king of Ur was the extreme limit of the conquests by these kings. Until the great event occurred, the year was called: ‘Year after’ (then the name of the previous year). Then by royal decree the official name of that year was announced.’ - (AM.0186)


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