Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0092

2035 BC


5.98″ (15.2cm) high x 5.28″ (13.4cm) wide




Eastern Mediterranean

Gallery Location



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 is flat on the obverse, but rises in the middle on the reverse. Each side has three columns of script, all written in a fine, large, clear scribal hand. The text is an account tablet, listing barley produced in a certain area of Sumer, based on the quantities threshed at the various threshing floors. It is dated to the third year of Shu- Sin, fourth king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2035 B.C. The system of measures used is one of capacity: the two measures being the gur and the sila, and the gur was 300 sila, the latter being about .85 of a litre. The ancient scribes had a system of figures for gur- and sila-measured things, which cannot be reproduced in our script, and they mostly wrote the sign for the gur at the end of the figures, though the sila came last. So we have converted their system into a simple one:

413.60 = 413 gur, 60 sila 413. = 413 gur .60 = 60 sila


583.60 of barley: threshing floor, first time 413.60: threshing floor, second time 112.240: threshing floor, third time 1109.60: threshing floor of the Ninmah field adjacent to Ibba-Sharrum 213.240: threshing floor grain pile of Nin- Isina Total: 1323 at the threshing floors Mr Nissaba-andul, manager 990.: threshing floor, first time 1671.: threshing floor second time 2661: threshing floor of Nin-Isina 440.: threshing floor of E-sukkalmah, between the grain piles of Nin-Isina and Ea-ishiak Total: 3101. (? or 3701?) at the threshing floors (gap) …] threshing floor… [….. 1122. [.(…)] threshing floor grain pile of Nin- [Isina] Total: 291. at the threshing floors Mr Lu-Ningirsu, manager 800.: clerk, Mr Apillasha: document of Malah, the sergeant (11 broken lines) [Total:….] + 50.60 Mr Kallamu, manager 744.: threshing floor Ea-ishiak: Mr Arshi’ah, manager 909.60: king’s gift (to) the soldiers, citizens of Ur: clerk Apillasha, document of Malah, the sergeant 909.60: disbursements 996.: threshing floor, first time 2044.: threshing floor, second time 1193.: threshing floor, third time 1042.: threshing floor, fourth time 472.60: threshing floor fifth time 4807.60: threshing floor of the field KUR.MUS Total: 6256.120 Mr Akalla, manager 871.60: threshing floor grain pile of ASHGAN: barley of the ‘Ox Field’ of ….in Ur Mr Ilum-bani, manager 1224.180: threshing floor grain pile of Nin- Isina: barley of the ‘Ox Field’ of Ea- [..] Mr Shu-Ea, manager 880.240: threshing floor grain pile of ASHGAN: barley of the ‘Ox Field’ of Nin-egal Mr Ur-Baba, manager 396.: threshing floor grain pile of Nin-Isina Mr Lugal-nilagare, manager Total:….’Man Field’ disbursements Total: 18704.240 at the threshing floors 24798.60: winnowed barley of the ‘Ox Field’ Mangers of: the KURMUSH field the Amhul field and the Ninmah field Via Mr Ili-bilanni and Ur-Shulpa’e Year after: the (boat) Ibex-of-the-Apsu was caulked

The tablet has been assembled from pieces, and there are some big gaps in the obverse, but little missing from the reverse. Normally these documents are precise and fully accurate, but here it is not always possible to check for lack of some figures. However, the first ‘Total’ is a correct adding of the preceding correct sub-total and the extra item. However the second total appears to be understated. Probably it is a simple scribal error, but too many figures are lost to be able to check the grand total at the very end. In any case the huge quantities of grain being produced are testimony to the effectiveness of this civilisation, which had to irrigate the land to get any crop at all.’

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