Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0087
Circa

2028 BC

Dimensions

2.68″ (6.8cm) high x 2.01″ (5.1cm) 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. The following is a transcription of his analysis of this tablet:

‘This is written in a clear, bold scribal hand. The tablet has some losses and rejoined pieces, but the content is generally clear. It is an administrative document dated to the first year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2028 B.C. It is a record of disbursements in connection with a particular estate of irrigated land:

Translation:

15 sila of….flour 206 sila of…[…].. 45 sila of…[…..] 77 sila of pea flour 30 sila of bread 3 gur 60 sila of barley flour 10 sila of best fine flour 180 sila of roasted barley flour 75 sila of best beer 1 gur 279 sila of… 240 […] sila of barley 7 1/2 sila of dates… 3 1/3 sila 5 shekels of ghee 8 sila 10 shekels of oil 2 1/2 sila of ….. 11……. Disbursements: accounts for Leather-Bottle field Document of Habit-Nuni Disbursed by Ur-Shubula Month: Festival of (the deity) Lisi Year: Ibbi-Sin, king Left edge: (should give the day of the month but damaged at this point)

As often with documents of this type, the ancient scribe knew exactly what he was recording and did not give the information we would like to have. In this case the question is, did all the items listed get produced on the Leather-Bottle field? There is such a variety that one may doubt this. More probably, as is normal with Ur III documents, the items handed out were in effect wages for workers on the land referred to, since this would be part of the state domain. Private holdings did not need such professional accounting.

The measures referred to are the sila and the shekel. They were measures of capacity, the sila about .85 of a litre, and a shekel was 1/60 of a sila. How bread was measured by capacity is never stated. The once mentioned gur was a large measure of 300 sila.’

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