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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - LSO.1020
Origin: Central Asia
Circa: 2028 BC
Dimensions: 3.85" (9.8cm) high x 2.20" (5.6cm) wide
Collection: Near Eastern
Style: Sumerian
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 24 Lines of Sumerian Cuneiform. 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 gur.

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 for Ird-E

barley rations for Mashtu, house-born slave:12 gur.

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 land and workers as well as a place of worship for the priests. - (LSO.1020)


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