Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0067
Circa

2038 BC

Dimensions

4.45″ (11.3cm) high x 2.80″ (7.1cm)

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. His scanned analysis is presented here. This document lists the valuable items in the property of a large economic unit. It is unusual for the length and detail of the description.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet, 113x71mm., with a total of 55 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse and reverse: two columns on the obverse, two on the reverse. Most of the script is clear and well preserved, but there is a little loss on the obverse, and much of the upper third column on the reverse is lacking, but it seems not to have been inscribed.

The content is an administrative document listing the valuable items in the property of a large economic unit, such as a temple. It is dated to the 9th year of Amar-Suena, third king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2038 B.C. The meaning of some of the terms is unknown because this is a very detailed record of many different items.

Translation

1 bronze goblet, large

2 bronze vessels

1 bronze baton (?)

1 bronze mirror

2 bronze toggle pins

1 warrior’s . . . , the . . . overlaid with gold, the . . . overlaid with silver

1 bronze . . . , the . . . overlaid with tin

1 bronze mace

2 copper maces

1 bronze . . . dagger

6 necklaces of lapis

a lapis . . .rank 1

a carnelian, long . . . rank 3

a long lapis, rank 4, its gold: rank 10

a lapis . . . rank 7

a stone […] rank 30, its carnelian rank 23

rings of stone, rank 40, their . . . rank 3

1 lapis tablet

1 block of lapis

8 stone tablets all in the offerings

6 gold . . .

1 silver ring

1 silver . . .

1 silver earring

1 silver . . .

2 rings of tin

1 . . . of tin

14 toggle pins of bronze

2 bronze rings

7 bronze . . .

2 bronze axes

[…] of bronze, rank 3

2 bronze jugs

5 bronze vessels

1 copper baton (?)

1 copper . . .

1 copper

8 copper maces

[.] bronze barbers’ razors

1 bronze axe

1 small. . .

1 carnelian . . .

1 . . . . . . .

Box . . […]

House of . [ . . .]

Property of [….] of Diniktum

Mat-ili, priest

Month: barley harvest

Year: the high priestess of Nanna of Karzida was by installed

Other tablets of this kind are known, but this one is extremely long in its listing and has many unknown terms. Their meanings will no doubt be worked out in time.

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