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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0348
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2040 BC
Dimensions: 3.23" (8.2cm) high x 1.73" (4.4cm) wide
Collection: Near Eastern
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. 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 7th year of Amar-Sin, third king of the dynasty, c. 2040 B.C. It is a listing of rations issued to official messengers:


10 sila of beer, 10 sila of bread,, 1 sila of date cake: Ahuni, son of the king when he went to the…of Ilum-bani. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Shu-E’a, king’s messenger when he went to complete the….to….5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Urumani, king’s messenger when he got the runaway men of Ur-sarig moving. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Erra-bani, vizier, king’s messenger when he went to Pulum. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ur-gu, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ilum-bani, king’s messenger when they went to Der. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Bilalum, king’s messenger when he brought sesame from Anzagar. Disbursement of the month Nig- Enlilla. Year: Huhnuri was destroyed. 25th day.

The sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. Its use for beer is obvious, but not for bread. The ancient scribes never explain the matter. Perhaps they measured the flour for the bread, not the baked product. This tablet is important as it explains the purposes of some of these trips, a thing not done in published tablets of this category.

The fourth line on the obverse was first written and then erased by the ancient scribe, who wrote something else on top of the erasure. It has so far not proved possible to decipher some of this line.’ - (AM.0348)


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