Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0120
Circa

2036 BC

Dimensions

2.48″ (6.3cm) high x 1.61″ (4.1cm) 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 a well-written tablet in very good condition. It is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 3rd day of an unidentified month of the second year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2036 B.C. It is a list of rations issued in this month to named official messengers.

Translation:

6 sila of soup, 4 fish: Mr Inim-Nanna, builder when he went to build the home of Shu-Sin. 1….., 3 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Sa’idsin, vizier, king’s messenger when he went to … the field. 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Lugal- nilagare, scribe, king’s messenger. 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Ur-gar, scribe when they went to extract the existing barley harvest. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Ur-Enlilla, cup- bearer. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Apilati, cup- bearer when they went from Der to the king. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Shu-Adad, barber when he went to…. Disbursement, month of the Plough. Year: Enki’s boat ‘The Ibex of Apsu’ was caulked. Left edge: 3rd day.

A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. The various people not called ‘king’s messenger’ here are all no doubt royal servants: builder (working on the king’s house!), scribe, cup-bearers and barber. They were of course at the king’s command, and the bureaucracy had to support them when the king sent them.’

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