Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0069

2050 BC to 2010 BC


3.98″ (10.1cm) high x 1.69″ (4.3cm) 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. His scanned analysis is presented here. This document records the outgoings in foodstuffs of a palace or temple.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet, 101x43mm., with 29 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse, reverse and left edge. It is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, not dated but to be placed c. 2050-2010 B.C. it is a list of outgoings in foodstuffs of a palace or temple, somewhat roughly written, and not very systematic. The tablet has been joined from two pieces with some loss at the join, and there are worn passages, but much can be read and understood: An iku was a measure or area (used with fields) and barley was measured by the gur and sila, measures of capacity. The sila was about .85 of a litre, and a gur was 300 sila.


…are the ikus, the seed corn is 7 gur

Wages of the hired men: 14 gur

(3 lines damaged)

payments of barley rations

30 sheep (1 line damaged)

1 gur of barley flour: month: the plow

1 gur 60 sila of barley flour: . . . offering

1 gur 60 sila of barley flour: . . . month: festival of Shulgi

1 gur 120 sila of barley flour: month: ezen-asig: in . . .

31 gur, 60 sila: barley rations for the temple

6 gur of beer-bread and beer of the gods

180 sila: offering for the temple of Shulpa’e

[…] second . . . of the weavers

[…] a disbursement

[…] purchase of copper

[…] wages of the temple weavers

[Total: . . . .] + 101 gur, 100 sila of barley

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