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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0091
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2100 BC to 2000 BC
Dimensions: 5.28" (13.4cm) high x 3.31" (8.4cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings

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. The following is a transcription of his analysis of this tablet:

'The tablet has four columns, two each side, but lacks top and bottom, which loss has deprived us of the beginning and end of the tablet, where some explanation of content could be expected. What is preserved is in fair condition and is a roster of persons with some organisation into households. One can reasonably assume that this is the staff of a large estate, temple or palace. At the bottom of what is preserved of column III there is a summary with serfs, sons and daughters specified, with total proving that the sons and daughters were not serfs. This diversity of status within the list confirms that this is the staff of some large organisation. Each name is preceded by a sign, two different signs being common. We interpret the one to indicate head of a household, the other a legal minor in that household. Thus we insert the latter category.


Column I: […..] his sons ……za, the brewer 1 son of his ….ati: singer Idnin-gada: singer 3 sons of his Ili-bana, singer Shalim-belu, singer Ullibeluk, metal smith Ur-Shulpa’e, metal smith Shu-Papa, bird-catcher Banti, fisherman Adad-bani, grass carrier Ili-satu, grass carrier

Column II: 1 son of his his children Ishar-padan, escort Ur-Shulp’e 1 son of his 1 son of his children Beli-tab, singer Shu-Daga 1 son of his his children Lama..[…] Ni […]

Column III:….. his children Shulgi- [….] Shu-Daga 1 son of his his children Simti, singer Lu-Shalim, her son Laqipum, groom 1 daughter of his Shu-Ishhara, groom Shu-Ishtar 1 son of his his children 29 serfs 1 son 18 sons 6 daughters…..54 Travelling: Apil-iliya, administrator

Column IV: Ilish-tikal, escort Travelling: Irdumalsin, singer Ili-amranni Me-Ninshuber 1 son of his his children Travelling: Utu-nigshaga, singer Ubarrum, his son Travelling: Rashihuni Laqisum, his child Travelling: Nur-Sin,… Iza […] Tish[a…] Shat-Sin his children Travelling: Lezanini Shu-Erra Lalmada his children

What is curious in this list is the number of singers compared with more practical professions like bird-catchers and fishermen. This suggests a large private estate in which the owner could indulge his personal whims. The tablet dates to c.2100-2000 B.C. and comes from Sumer.' - (AM.0091)


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