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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0323
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2027 BC
Dimensions: 2.28" (5.8cm) high x 1.61" (4.1cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings
Medium: Clay

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. His scanned analysis is presented here. This document is a list of rations paid out to official messengers.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

‘Clay tablet with 20 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on the obverse and reverse. It is in an excellent state of preservation. It dates to the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, being dated to the second year of the last king of the dynasty, Ibbi-Sin, c. 2027 BC. It is a listing of various batches of leather made from sheep skin. It is rare and important, but full of rare and difficult words so that a full translation is not yet possible. It deals with five batches of sheep skins and each batch has the same treatment: first a colour is specified (white or red), next its ‘cover’ is stated, but many of the things used in this covering are obscure. Finally each batch is declared ‘not put together (?)’. The whiteness is not a colouring, but the result of using alum for tanning. The redness is no doubt the same, but so far we do not have the explanation.

The following is a provisional attempt to give a translation:

8 white sheep skins: their cover cress seed, not packaged. 12 red sheep skins: their cover…., not packaged. 2 red sheep skins: their cover….., not packaged. 1 red sheep skin: its cover….., not packaged for the king’s offering. 5 white sheep skins: their cover……..oil, not packaged the soldier Lugal- Kisal received. Month: the plow. Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination.

There are many administrative documents about leather production from the period following the Third Dynasty of Ur, but they fail to explain many of these terms.’ - (AM.0323)


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