Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0057

2028 BC


1.57″ (4.0cm) high x 1.46″ (3.7cm) 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. His scanned analysis is presented here. Although the surface of the tablet is badly worn (caused by the scribe rolling his cylinder seal over the writing), it can be read with difficulty. It records the rations issued to an official messenger.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet 70x50mm., with 5 preserved lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse and upper reverse, the remainder of the reverse is damaged and illegible. This is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, probably dated at the end of the now illegible reverse, but to be assigned to c. 2040-2020 B.C. It has a rare content, but not fully intelligible today, since a summary (and so explanation) would have been written before this date on the damaged part of the reverse. What is legible is the first part:

133, 200

892 iku

521 iku, salt water 742 ½ iku, . . .

822 iku

The last four sections are clear in the first part: the figures used are those for measuring areas of land, and the iku is such a measure, about 3528 square metres. The first such measurement has no further explanation, the second is explained as “salt water,” but the third and fourth have explanations which seem to be unknown elsewhere and are totally obscure to us.

The background of the areas of land is clear: arable farming only took place in Sumer thanks to irrigation, but irrigation had problems because the water was naturally salt, due to the salt in the river water, and if that was allowed to stay on arable land, eventually the land because too salt to produce good crops. And down by the gulf there was an impact of sea water, which is of course also salt.

Thus it appears that the first measure of iku refers to land which had been well husbanded and was not poor quality due to salt. The second measure refers to land which was less productive due to build up of salt. He third and fourth no doubt were worse still, but we do not understand the terms.

The first line is the biggest problem. It uses ordinary figures, not figures for special measurements, but to what do they refer with such a huge total: 133,200? The obvious first idea must be that the total is of workmen on the land. But a total of 133,200 workmen is simply too many. However, the Sumerian scribes worked with the concept of man-days, i.e. the number of men involved and the days that they worked (and had to be paid in some form). So the total would be for, probably, one month of 30 days, so 4,440 men, which is quite reasonable. Sumer was more populated than southern Iraq is today.

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