Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU LK.134
Circa

2035 BC

Dimensions

2.04″ (5.2cm) high x 1.5″ (3.8cm) 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:

‘The tablet is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur dated to the 3rd year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2035 B.C. it is an administrative documents about striking some names from a roster of workmen:

Ayari and Ili-andulli, son of Ilum-rabi, sons of Ilum-bani: deleted from the tablet at the order of Ashgi-illassu, commissar: associate Rabi- ilum, commoner. Clerk: Sharrum-Id. Total: associate, commoner. Total: son of Heir. Checked: the associate commoner totalled. Ashgi-ellassu, commissar, took. Via Ur-Mes, governor. Month: Ezen-asig. Year: Simanum was destroyed.

There are many problems about this tablet. It is perfectly written in every sign, but it uses single horizontal wedge before some personal names, which is not usual in this period. Also after “Clerk: Sharrum-Id”, it heaped irrelevancies. Documents declaring some man struck from the register are well known and not problematical, but “Total” only occurs in meaningful contexts when various numbered items (commonly goods) are being totalled. Here only two men are involved, hardly needing a total, and no figure is in fact given, the second total apparently making the common noun “heir” into a personal name, not elsewhere attested. And the statement that Ashgi-ellassu “took” belongs to a document recording the transfer of goods within the government bureaucracy. The two men struck from the records had presumably disappeared and so could not be “taken”. Clearly this a scribal exercise, done by a very well trained student who was showing off his beautiful scribal hand by writing a somewhat meaningless document.

One small gash on lower reverse, otherwise condition fine.

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