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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0214
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2026 BC
Dimensions: 6.22" (15.8cm) high x 4.13" (10.5cm) 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:

‘It comes from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, and is dated to the 3rd year of the last king of the dynasty, Ibbi-Sin, c. 2026 B.C. It is an administrative document about sheep and goats in the care of named individuals. Two matters of translation must be explained. The numerals used for counting the animals are sexagesimal, that is they are half decimal, half based on 6, rising: 1-10-60-600-3600 etc. However only two symbols are used: a vertical wedge for 1 and 60, a fish-tail shaped wedge for 10 and 600. But some clarity is created by the place value notation: the bigger numeral always precedes the smaller. When a numeral uses a single symbol or only several of the same, it is ambiguous and one has to make a judgment. For example, in the first line of this document common sense tells us that 180 rams is far too many for a flock of 75 female sheep, so 3 is correct. The scribe is economical with signs. One Sumerian sign means “sheep” (female if not specified), and ram is written with the sign for “sheep” followed by the sign for “male”. The scribe does this regularly in the first section but thereafter he writes the single sign after both numbers, which, literally translated, produces nonsense, e.g. “72 sheep, 2 sheep”. We have always assumed that he has saved himself the trouble and translate the second by “ram”. Similarly with the two Sumerian signs for “soldier.” This translation is used because the status of these men was similar to that of soldiers today: by entering military service to the crown they lost some of their civil liberties, but Sumerian soldiers were used for every kind of labour as well as serving in war (which was normally restricted to certain seasons when the fields made no demands). We translate “soldier” in every case. In the first column the scribe always writes “soldier of the king”, but thereafter he writes only “soldier.” Again it appears he is saving trouble for himself, and means “soldier of the king” in every case.


75 sheep, 3 rams: Nabi-ilishu, king’s soldier. 300 sheep, 1 ram: …lanum, king’s soldier. 70 sheep, 2 rams: Lu-Nanna, king’s soldier. 240 sheep, 2 rams: Shu-ili, king’s soldier. 240 sheep, 1 ram:….rishum, servant of Sin-ellassu. … .sheep, 1 ram:….king’s soldier. (Damaged section) Mr Elak-nu’id, first time round. 70 sheep, 1 ram, 1 mature male goat: Puzur-Haya, soldier. 300 sheep, 1 ram: Gaya. Via Shu-Ashtar, servant. 180 sheep, 1 ram: Pushu, watchman. 75 sheep, 1 ram, 1 mature male goat. (Damaged lines and loss of text) 300 sheep, 1 [ram….]-Sin- [….] 70 sheep, 2 rams:…[….]….sheep, 1 ram: [… .] 300 sheep, 1 ram: [….] Via Puzur- [….] 72 sheep, 2 rams, [1] mature male goat: Tashmi’a,. servant of Sin-ellassu. 300 sheep, 1 late ram: Shu-Utela[….] 480 sheep, 1 ram, 1 mature male goat: Ea-dan. 420 sheep, 1 ram, 1 mature male goat: Ititi, soldier. 300 sheep, 1 ram: Adallal, soldier. 300 sheep, 1 ram:….. 3120 s[heep…:] Adallal [……] Babanum, groom. Total: 8 ewes, 1 female lamb….Total: 120 rams. Total: 2 female goats, 1 male goat….Total: 9 mature male goats ……180 sheep and goats. Sheep taken by shepherds: via Babanum, groom. Year: Ibbi-Sin, king of Ur, destroyed Simurrum.

The details of animals and shepherds taking them over leaves a lot unexplained, because it was normal at the time. The men taking over the animals were professional shepherds, and the animals belonged to the state (the palace or temple). The shepherds had to care for the animals, and at a fixed time every year had to account to their employers. A fixed percentage of increase in the number of animals was laid down: any extra animals above that number belonged to the shepherds. Thus they had every incentive to look after the animals well and to assist their procreation in every way possible. These rules were well-known and commonly in force, so the only record needed by the state was a list of numbers and types of animal and the names of those entrusted with them, and that is what this tablet did.’ - (AM.0214)


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