Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM>0117
Circa

2027 BC

Dimensions

1.61″ (4.1cm) high x 1.46″ (3.7cm) 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 small, nearly square tablet, written in a big, clear scribal hand. Two lines at the bottom of the obverse are erased, but whether unintentionally or deliberately is not clear. The text is an administrative document dated to the second year of Ibbi- Sin, last king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2027 B.C. It is a receipt for parts of the palm tree within the government bureaucracy.

Translation:

900 frond spines. 4800 palm fronds. (Two lines erased). From Ur-Dumuzi, scribe and salt pulverizer, Ku’elak, foreman of the craftsmen, has received. Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination.

The palm tree was the only real tree growing in Sumer, and it was not native, but only cultivated, with much attention. As the palm tree grows, new fronds appear at the top, and in nature the old fronds hang down forming a brown skirt around the whole trunk from top to bottom. As cultivated, these old fronds are hacked off and make the trunk visible. Since Sumer lacked almost any natural resources other than clay, every part of the palm was used. The fronds could be cut up and woven into baskets for example, and the spines of the fronds, the hardest parts also had many uses, since they are hard, like wood.’

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