Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0111
Circa

2029 BC

Dimensions

2.24″ (5.7cm) high x 1.69″ (4.3cm) 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 is a tablet written in large, clear signs by a fine scribe, an administrative document from the Third Dynasty of Ur, datable to the 9th year of Amar-Suena, third king of the dynasty, c. 2029 B.C. It is a reckoning of the amount of work done by female weavers over one calendar year, to check against the goods delivered from this work:

Translation:

199 slave girls full time. 11 slave girls half work-assignments. From the month Plough of the year: the high priestess of Eridu was installed, to the month Shuniggal of the year: the high priestess of Nanna of Karzida was installed: the years: 12 (Error for ‘1’!), the months : 12. The work assignments: 73620 daily shifts per slave girl. From the accounting of….: Mr Ur-hendursag, foreman of the weavers.

This tablet raises many interesting questions, only some of which can be solved. There is nothing strange in the 210 slave girls employed in weaving and related work in this place. Many documents from the town of Umma, not the town of this document as the month names prove, from the same period attest to a very strong textile industry there. Sheep and goats were the standard domestic animals of this whole civilisation, and both yield wool. Cotton was unknown, and linen was expensive, and little used for fabric. The problem of this tablet is what is being collected in this statement of accounting. We know from Umma that the quantities of wool, from arrival at the ancient factory to its departure as finished cloth or garments, were precisely noted down by the scribes. This tablet ignores all that and is interested only in the labour used over one calendar year. The concept of ‘man-hours’ is well known to us, but this uses rather ‘slave-girl days.’ In short, it is information for studying labour productivity, to be correlated with the amount of goods produced over the period. Two things arouse suspicion: first, that the 73620 day shifts divided by the total of full- time equivalents of girls gives exactly 360 per girl. The calendar was notionally of twelve months of 30 days each! Secondly, the 12 years is surely an error. The two year names are in sequence, so the 12 months is right. Perhaps the ancient statisticians simplified their work by avoiding detail. Surely the slave girls did not work 360 days per calendar year?’

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