Sumerian cuneiform is one of the earliest known
forms of written expression. First appearing in
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
millennium BC to a series of strokes, along with
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
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
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 24 Lines of Sumerian
The tablet is complete, but has been joined from
two main pieces and some smaller fragments
with a little loss of text at the joins. It is an
administrative document from the period of the
Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the fist year of the
late king, Ibbi-Sin, c.2028 B.C. The month is also
given: Dingir-e, but it is form a little known
calendar and cannot be placed in their seasonal
calendar. The content is a record of the incoming
of a large quantity of barley (presumably to a
temple-estate office) and of how that barley had
been largely used up:
2(5)5 gur f barley, (…) a delivery: from it:
Seed-grain for 60 acres: 6 gur.
Animal fodder……….6 gur.
Wages of the hired men 12 gur.
Wages of the hired men 12 gur.
1 ox, price…….6 gur.
80 sheep, price…….40 gur.
payments for one year.
beer and bread for a banquet of the gods…..10
offerings for the priest 60 gur.
barely rations for Ird-E 72 gur.
2 talents of wool at price 12 minas each…..
price. 10 gur, wool ration
barley rations for Mashtu, house-born slave:12
Total: 234 gur of barley: the disbursement.
Remainder: 21 gur.
Account of the goods of the priest.
(Month Festival) of Dingir-e.
Year: Ibbi-Sin, king.
Barley was the standard grain crop in Sumer,
because it was more suited to the saline soil of
the land than wheat or oats, if indeed oats were
known. A gur is a measure of bulk, about 252
litres, so the amount of grain involved is huge.
Sumerian temples were like European
monasteries: self-supporting institutions with
and workers as well as a place of worship for the