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 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 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 control. Most of what
we know about the way the culture was run and
administered comes from the cuneiform tablets,
which record the everyday running of the temple
and palaces 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:
This tablet consists of 17 lines of Sumerian
cuneiform on obverse, reverse and left edge. An
administrative document from the period of the
Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the first year of
Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty, c. 2028 BC. It
lists rations paid out to official messengers to
sustain them on their travels:
5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Shu-Mamma,
3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: lala, king’s
messenger when they went to give . . . . . . pitch
to the city governor.
3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ziram, king’s
messenger when he went to the . . . . . field.
Disbursement, of the month “Festival of Shulgi”.
Year: Ibbi-Sin, king. Left edge: 16th Day.
A sila was a measure of a capacity, about .85 of
a litre. For beer it is obvious, but the ancient
texts never explain how bread was so measured.
Perhaps the flour rather than the baked product
was measured. This is a so-called “messenger
tablet”, but unlike others previously published
this one explains the purpose of the various
trips. When such information is collated it will
give us a mych better understanding of the
organization of this very bureaucratic period.
There is some chipping of the edges, but most
of the text remains very clear.