Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0105
Circa

2028 BC

Dimensions

3.62″ (9.2cm) high x 2.13″ (5.4cm) wide

Medium

Terracotta

Origin

Eastern 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 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:

‘This tablet is written in a large, clear scribal hand and is in perfect condition. It is an administrative document dated to the last year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2028 B.C., and to a month not so far placeable in a calendar. It is a summary of disbursements of foodstuffs apparently over the named month:

Translation:

15 sila of soup: the eshesh-festival, to the king. 60 sucking calves. 24 fattened sheep. 63….. 792 sila of soup. 8 beer: 30 sila units. 44 beer: 20 sila units. 16 beer: pots of 5 sila units. King’s messengers and disbursements, 20 dead doves. 640 small birds. 2100 sila of soup. 40 sila of….. 17 beer: 30 sila units. The weaver slave-girls with Ali-lissu. 275 small birds. 1022 sila of soup. The oil-pressing slave-girls, milling slave-girls , slave girls in the brewery and slave-girls in the… 800 sila of soup. Men of the sergeant and the new…. 690 sila of soup: the….s of the garden. 18 carcasses of oxen. 366 carcasses of sheep. 60 carcasses of pigs. Food for the lions and dogs of the palace: 56 in all. Disbursements of…meat. Adad-rabi, manager. Month: Shuniggal. Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination. Left edge: Mr Ishar-ramashshu. Mr Shu-ilishu.

This is a rare type of document. In one long side it has a hole, which originally contained the end of a string by which it was tied to a box or basket of tablets containing documentation of all the individual items which are totalled in our tablet. Small Ur III square tablets with such holes are well known, but they all begin ‘Tablet Box’ and are brief, never extending to anything like 38 lines. The importance of this tablet is not only its rarity in form and content, but that it gives an overview of the workers in what is called a ‘palace.’ The palace was not the abode of the king, as that would have been in Ur, the capital, but this tablet comes from some other smallish place in Sumer where the palace was the centre of local administration. But, as we see, it was a centre of economic activity. It had gangs of slave girls working in weaving, oil-pressing, milling grain, brewing and another task of which the term is not understood. Also it was surely the personal abode of the city governor (Sumerian term: ensi), in view of the large number of dogs and lions being fed there. The 56 lions and dogs (unfortunately no separate figures for the two kinds) surely were not the norm of all city governors of this empire. There is plenty of evidence that lions were kept in captivity in this civilisation, but only rarely and often only one at any time and place. Judging by the 444 carcasses of oxen, sheep and pigs assigned to them over one month, it would seem that they were not starved.’

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