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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0198
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2027 BC
Dimensions: 2.95" (7.5cm) high x 1.89" (4.8cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings
Style: Cuneiform

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:

‘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, c.2027 B.C. It gives a listing of various kinds of baskets and their fillings. The end in view is nowhere stated, but the operation was on the king’s orders, so obviously it was not just a routine matter. The text is difficult with some rare and even otherwise unknown terms, so not everything can yet be translated.


124 baskets: set aside with….goods by: 20 double baskets of 30 sila capacity each: filled with….by: 50 double baskets of 30 sila capacity each: filled with crushed onions by: 60 double baskets of 30 sila capacity each. 120 long baskets of 60 sila capacity each: filled with shallots by. 6….set aside with grass by: 275 fish baskets of 60 sila capacity each: filled with mustard and….by: The king’s offering. 10 baskets set aside with goods by: 15 fish baskets of 60 sila capacity each: filled with mustard and….by: 10 double baskets of 30 sila capacity each: filled with shallots by: by Mr Ninmu. Disbursement via the king. Month: the Plough. Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination.

A sila was a standard measure of capacity, about ,85 of a litre. The double baskets were of course for the backs of donkeys. Curiously the subject of all the verbs (the official in charge of the whole operation) is only mentioned once: in the last line of the text before the summary and the date. This is a rare and curious document.’ - (AM.0198)


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