Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0074

2027 BC


4.84″ (12.3cm) high x 2.05″ (5.2cm) 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 is a list of domestic animals in groups, followed by the name of their shepherd.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet, 123x52mm., with 50 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse and reverse. There is a big chip from the upper left-hand corner, which has removed the beginnings of some 10 lines, and a little is missing on the lower reverse for the same reason. This is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the second year of Ibbi-Sin last king of the dynasty, c.2027 B.C. It is a list of domestic animals in groups, with their shepherd named after each count of animals. The numbering is complicated because of the use of the same symbol for different numbers. Thus an uprights wedge can mean “1” or “60” according to context. The problem in this tablet is that one line often has the same animal type mentioned twice, with a different number each time. No doubt this was clear to the original scribe, but ut is confusing to us, and the problem is not solved here.


[…] 60 he-goats: […] shepherd

[…] sheep […]gesi

[…] 60 sheep: .[…]. Shepherd

70 [sheep], 120 sheep: .[…]. Shepherd

70 sheep, 120 sheep:: Shu-Tirum, shepherd

150 goats, 60 goats: Apillatum, shepherd: sheep og Ur-Suena

200 ewes, 60 ewes: Ilam-nada

300 sheep, 60 sheep: Kuku, son of Hulli

90 sheep, 60 lambs: Puzur-Ashtar

510 sheep, 120 sheep: Ur-Shulpa’e, priest

600 sheep, 60 sheep: Ashki-tukulti

780 sheep: 180 sheep: Shunu’a, scribe of . . . cattle

210 sheep. 60 sheep: Shu-Nissaba

120 sheep, 60 lambs: Babbu

240 sheep, 60 sheep: Puzur-Shakkan, son of Mat-ili

180 male and female goats, 60 goats: Ur-Nin- isina, shepherd

780 sheep, 160 sheep, 60 he goats: Ur-Ningal

600 sheep, 120 sheep: Anne-babdu

660 sheep, 60 sheep, 60 he-goats, 1 he goat at milk: Shu-Mammetum

240 sheep, 60 sheep: Baqqum

180 goats, 60 he goats: Ashki

120 sheep, 60 lambs: Shu-Mammetum, the watchman

Total: 60 ewes

Total: 1320 sheep

Total: 180 lambs

[Total]: 120 (?) goats

[Total: . . . ] male goats

[Total: . . . ] he goat at milk

[Total: . . . ] +34: […]. Took. [..] son of Beli-dan

[Year: the high priestess of Uruk] was chosen by divination

No doubt there is some simple explanation of the two sets of figured for the same kind of animal.

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