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 clay tablet consists of 26 lines of Sumerian
cuneiform on obverse, reverse and left edge.
Slightly surface rubbing, otherwise in very good
condition. 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 is a listing of rations issued to official
messengers to feed them on their travels.
5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Shulubum, king’s
messenger when he went to call up the. . . . .
5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Andul, scribe when
he went to exchange the . . . . . .
3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Puzur-Ishtar king’s
messenger when he went for wool.
3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: . . . .-bani, king’s
messenger when he went to arrest the bandits.
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ku-Ningal, butler.
2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Aza-bani, butler
when they went from Der to the king.
5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Kallamu, king’s
2 sila of bread: Shu-Adad, groom.
2 sila of bread: Sin-andul, groom when they
went to Anshebaran-zikum.
Disbursement of the extra barley harvest month.
Year: Ibbi-Sin king. Left Edge: 6th day.
The interest of this tablet is that while it belongs
to a well-known type of “messenger tablets”, all
published so far simply give the names and
amounts of provisions, but this one often gives
the reasons for the trips. In time with more of
this kind a fuller understanding of the economic
organization of this dynasty will become clear.
The extra month was inserted every so often to
keep the lunar calendar in line with the sun.