Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU LK.133

2028 BC


1.9″ (4.8cm) high x 1.6″ (4.1cm) 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 dates to the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, and is dated to the first year of the last king of the dynasty, Ibbi-Sin, c. 2028 B.C. its is a record of rations being issued to a group of foreign visitors.


1 sila of beer, 1 sila of bread: men of Simashkum, when they went to Shimashkum. Via Shaga, king’s messenger. Document which the Grand Vizier sent from city to city. Disbursement of the month Intercalary Barley Harvest. Year: Ibbi-Sin, king.

Simashkum was a place in south-west Iran, and it appears that a group of foreigners were present in Sumer and as they left for their home country they were issued with a sila of beer and a sila of bread each. A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. The measure suits beer very well, but not bread. Perhaps, the flour rather tan the baked product was measured. In any case, these men were treated shabbily because messengers of the king of Ur always got 2 sila at the least for such a trip, and often more, even much more. We do not know how these men came to be in Sumer. Were they an official delegation? Or were they foreigners who had come to Sumer to take jobs and were being paid off? The reference to this intercalary month is interesting. The Sumerians had a calendar of twelve lunar months to the year, but this resulted in a year short of the solar year, by which agriculture was necessarily organized. So at fixed intervals they inserted an extra 12th (or much less commonly 6th) month. This was the 13th month of their calendar year in that case.’

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