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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - CT.032
Origin: Central Asia
Circa: 2029 BC
Dimensions: 2.20" (5.6cm) high x 1.81" (4.6cm) 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 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:

Clay Tablet with 17 lines of Sumerian Cuneiform on obverse and reverse. The whole surface was rolled with the scribe’s cylinder seal after being inscribed, which has made reading more difficult. The whole tablet is in very good condition. It is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 9th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2029 B.C. The content is a list of the different kinds of craftsmen working at some temple or palace on a particular day.


2 metal workers.

4 goldsmiths.

3 gem engravers

33 ………..

31 carpenters.

12 leather workers.

5 tailors.

30 basket-makers.

For 1 day, working at ……., in the big garden.

Day of the king’s ………

Via Iddi-Adad, scribe.

Month: Asig festival. Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, built the temple of Shara in Umma.

This is important as giving a detailed presentation of the various craftsmen emplyed in a single institution at this time. Clearly metal was not in good supply (only 2 smiths), while basket- making and wood-working were common. It is unfortunate that the most common profession here (33 persons) has not yet been read. - (CT.032)


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