Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0070
Circa

2026 BC

Dimensions

2.44″ (6.2cm) high x 1.93″ (4.9cm) 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. His scanned analysis is presented here. This text is a legal document concerning a courtier called Puzur-Sin and some barley.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet, 62x49mm., with 14 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse, reverse and left edge. A legal document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the third year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty, c. 2026 B.C. Legal documents of this period are common, but this one has unusual phrases which make a full translation and explanation difficult for the moment. The tablet was rolled with the scribe’s cylinder seal after its writing, which has obscured some of the signs, and though on the reverse blank patches were left to show the seal inscription, it is not fully legible.

This legal deed concerns a courtier called Puzur- Sin and barley.

Translation

26 gur, 120 sila of barley: its acreage 16 iku

Barley rations of the courtier Puzur-Sin:

So long as he consumes the barley and . . . . . he must pay it back

He took an oath in the king’s name.

Court ruling for . . .

Let edge: Puzur-Sin, courtier

A gur and a sila were measures of capacity, used for barley. A sila was about .85 of a litre, and a gur was 300 sila. Thus the quantity of barley involved here is large. Though it was normal for administrators of this period to work out the amount of land required to produce a quantity of barley, or as a record of the area of land in fact employed for the purpose, there are implications here not clear to us. Similarly if the barley was assigned to a courtier, it would presumably be his wages in effect, so why does he have to repay it? Commitments to pay off barley in the future were common: loans against the next crop were well understood.

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