Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0116

2040 BC


2.09″ (5.3cm) 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. The following is a transcription of his analysis of this tablet:

‘The tablet is written in a clear, good quality scribal hand, and is in very good condition. It is an administrative document dated to the 7th year of Amar-Suena, third king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2040 B.C., to the 16th day of an unidentified month. It is a list of rations paid out to official messengers.


5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Issur-ilum, king’s messenger when he went to….the…… .of the Elamites. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Ilum-rabi, king’s messenger when he went to call up the… sheep shearers. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Sharrum-ili, king’s messenger when he went to take the runaway men, servants of the palace. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Puzur-Erra, king’s messenger when he went to Der. Disbursement of the month Barley Harvest. Year: Huhnuri was destroyed. Left edge: 16th day.

A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. This tablet belongs to a category known as ‘messenger tablets’ but those published do not give the reasons for the journeys, as does the present tablet, though the first case is obscure due to rare phrases. These explanations offer an interesting light on the times.’

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