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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0149
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2027 BC
Dimensions: 4.57" (11.6cm) high x 2.09" (5.3cm) 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:

‘It is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the second year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty, c. 2027 BC. It is a listing of rations issued to official messengers. The measures used for the bread and beer are the sila (about .85 of a litre), and the gur (300 sila). They are measures of capacity, obvious for beer, but not for bread, a problem for us never explained by them. Perhaps the flour was measured, not the baked product.


60 sila of beer, 70 sila of bread: Nur- Shamash, rider, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shu-Ashtar, cup- bearer. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Dagan- dan butcher. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Adda-kalla, butcher. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Zali’a, diviner. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Abbamu, diviner when they went for the king’s offering. 30 sila of beer, 30 sila of bread: Ur-Shu-Sin, deputy grand vizier. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shalim-ahum, king’s messenger when they went for barley for (the god) Nanna. 20 sila of beer, 20 sila of bread: Puzur-Sin, son of the grand vizier when he went to call up men to flail the barley. 30 sila of beer, 30 sila of bread: Sharrum-bani, colonel when he went to Der. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Sin-alshu, king’s messenger when he went from Der to the king. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: [ …]mi’a, king’s messenger [when] he went to Der. [5] sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Nur-ili, king’s messenger when he went for barley. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Hulal, king’s messenger when he went on the road to Anshebaran-Zikum. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Pululu, groom when he went to Anshebaran-Zikum. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Sheshkalla, king’s soldier: sick when he went as a guard to the harvested barley and smashed the bandits. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ahu-tab, king’s messenger when he went to save the harvested barley that was under water. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Awilumma, king’s messenger when he went for oil. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Ur-ab…ga, scribe when he went to bring out the barley of the….2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Lugal-amashku, the…when he went for spices. Disbursement of the month ‘plow’ Year, the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination. 30th day. Total: 201 sila of beer, 206 sila of bread.

Save for one small spot of damage, the tablet is in fine condition.’ - (AM.0149)


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