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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Archive : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0064
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2030 BC
Dimensions: 2.28" (5.8cm) high x 1.89" (4.8cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings

Additional Information: SOLD

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 signs 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 the 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 court control. Most of what we know about the way the culture was run and administered comes from cuneiform tablets, which record the everyday running of the temple and palace 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. His scanned analysis is presented here. The document records the issuing of baskets to an official messenger.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet, 58x48mm., with 11 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse and reverse. The scribe rolled his cylinder seal over the surface of the tablet after he had written it, and in the process obliterated some of he writing, but most can be read, if with difficulty. The text is an administrative document recording the issue of baskets to an official messenger.


300 reed double baskets

64 reed baskets: set aside for . . .

Mr A . . . –imitidam when he went from Der to the king

Month: barley harvest

Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, constructed an exalted barge for Enlil and Ninlil

It is not clear how the messenger was expected to convey 364 baskets from Der (in the Diyala valley) probably to Ur, where the king ruled. No doubt he had one or more porters to assist.

The date is the 8th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty of Ur, c. 2030 B.C. The seal rolled gave the name, title, and father’s name of the scribe who owned it, but despite multiple rollings, it is not possible to read the whole, but it was of three lines:

Mr . . .


son of Beli

Of the art-work of the seal, more is clear: a seated deity and a figure standing in front of the god. - (AM.0064)


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