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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0327
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2030 BC
Dimensions: 3.94" (10.0cm) high x 2.05" (5.2cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings
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 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. This document is a list of rations paid out to official messengers.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

‘Clay tablet with 29 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on the obverse and reverse, joined from pieces with some loss of surface but the majority is well-preserved. The tablet is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 8th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2030 BC. It is a list of bronze objects owned by a temple or the state, so weights are given and totalled at the end. There were no sources of metal in Sumer: it had to be imported, so it was valued and government agencies kept a check on the number of articles in use and their weight.

The tablet is difficult because it uses the technical terms for bronze objects which we cannot translate with certainty. For example, habuda is well known as a tool used in agriculture, but so far we cannot translate it. Also, peculiarly to this tablet, most entries end with the sign BE, which seems purposeless to us, but it clearly had a meaning to the ancients. It could mean ‘finished’ (worn out and so for use as scrap only?), but it might mean a dozen other things and we have no way of settling the matter so far. Other tablets of this content do not have it.


[……] for the vegetable plot or bronze, 6….: their weight: 25 shekels. 40…..of bronze….. 60 (musical instruments) of bronze, 7…….: their weight: 33 minas, 20 shekels. 3 bronze axes, 8…….. 20 bronze……1 large sickle of bronze: 8…..: their weight: 16 minas, 50 shekels. 134 (agricultural tools), large ones of bronze…..3222 (agricultural tools) of bronze. 2856 sickles of bronze…..20 bronze axes…..65 bronze….spades…..101 bronze…..(2 lines too broken for translation) 2 bronze saws….6 bronze…..4 bronze….[….] bronze….., of Kesh,…..: their weight: 9 talents, 44 minas, 19 shekels. Weighing by Basmum. Ku-elak received (these objects). Year: Shu-Sin, King of Ur, made a magnificent barge for Enlil and Ninlil.

A shekel was a weight of about 8 grams, a mina was composed of 60 shekels, and a talent was made up of 60 minas.’ - (AM.0327)


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