Cuneiform Tablet

SKU LSO.103
Circa

2028 BC

Dimensions

3.66″ (9.3cm) high x 1.77″ (4.5cm) wide

Medium

Terracotta

Origin

Mediterranean

Gallery Location

UK


 

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 it’s 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 decipherment and translation of cuneiform, to examine and process the information on these tablets. His analysis is presented below.

Clay tablet (93 x 45 mm) with Sumerian Cuneiform Inscription The tablet is written in a neat scribal hand and is joined from two pieces, with a little loss of surface for the reverse, but is otherwise complete and legible. The text is an administrative document dated to the first year of Ibbi-Sin, fifth king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2028 BC. It is a list of rations of beer and bread issued to official messengers to sustain them on their journeys: Translation: 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Nur-ili, king’s messenger 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Lu-dingirra, king’s messenger 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ilum-asu, king’s messenger When they set out for Simashkum 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Ibni-Sin, king’s messenger When he went to bring out the harvested barley to… 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shamash-dan, cup-bearer 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ku-Ningal, cup- bearer When they set out from Bad-An to where the king was 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ur-Shakkan, king’s groom 2 sila of bread: Kakkkuda-bani, equerry 2 sila of bread: Izzaz-Meshar, equerry 2 sila of bread: Shulgi-na…, equerry 2 sila of bread: Girini-isha, equerry 2 sila of bread: Shu-Eshtar, equerry 2 sila of bread: Inimmani, equerry 2 sila of bread: Iddin-Enlil, equerry 2 sila of bread: Puzur-Enlil, equerry 2 sila of bread: Shanakum, equerry When they set out for ……rum 2 sila of [beer], 2 sila of bread: Ikum- Meshar, the… When he went to Urshum. Disbursement for the month Gisigga, Year: Ibbi-Sin (became) king. Left edge: 20th (?) day *** The general content is clear. This is a record from a big organisation such as the royal palace which sent out messengers and supplied their needs. The sila is a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre, and beer is easily measured in that way. How bread was similarly measured is never explained. Perhaps it refers to the grain used, or the flour which was used to make the bread. Barley was the major crop of this civilisation, since wheat flourished less well in the saline soil of Sumer. Barley provided their major food and drink: bread and beer. The Third Dynasty of Ur was characterised with a massive bureaucracy, of which this is one example. The tablet is joined from two pieces, and lacks a little of the reverse, but generally is in very good condition.

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