Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0124
Circa

2030 BC

Dimensions

3.46″ (8.8cm) high x 2.09″ (5.3cm) 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:

‘The tablet is divided into two columns on each side, and is fully inscribed with a fine scribal hand. The upper left-hand corner is incomplete, but much of what is lost can be restored from the general content. It is an administrative document dated to the 8th year of Amar-Suena, third king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2030 B.C., to the 11th day of an unidentified month. It is a listing of rations paid out as wages to royal servants of various kinds, and thus provides an important source for the social and economic history of the period.

Translation:

[1 sila of soup], 1 fish: [Mr….], smith. [1 sila of soup, 1] fish: [Mr…..], smith. [1 sila of soup], 1 fish: [Mr…..], smith. [1 sila of soup], I fish: [Mr…….] smith [when] they […..] a statue of the king. [1]….., 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Lu-Ningirsu, groom. 1….., 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Aku’a, groom. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Alla, groom. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Ir-Nanna, throne man. 1…., 3 sila of soup. 3 fish: Mr Ishtar-ki-Utu, man of the… garment. 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Mannum- alsu, man of the …garment. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Katu, man of the…..garment. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Ur-Ninanna, cook. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Dudu, cook. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Shu-Ninisina, cook. 1…., 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Ur-Shulpa’e, fatener. 1……, 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Ahuni, son of the king. 1…., 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Sharrum-ili, son of the king. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Sheziqtum, courtyard sweeper. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Dadda, courtyard sweeper. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Sharrum- ili, cup-bearer. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Buzaza, barber. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Ur- Shulgi, barber. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Nur- Sin, throne man. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Ahuni, senior soldier. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Lu-Ishtaran, cook. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Shulgi-ili, cook. 1…., 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Dadda, scribe of offerings. 3 sila of soup, 3 fish: for the butchers. 3 sila of soup, 3 fish: for the ‘kings’. 1….., 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Shu-Shamash, vizier, king’s messenger. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Akalla, the……man when they went on the king’s journey. Total: 8….. [4]5 sila of soup. [4]5 fish. [….]…[Month:….]….[Year: the high priestess] of Eridu [was] installed. Left edge: 11th [day].

This is a very important document, but full of mystery in some respects. It begins with rations for four metal smiths making a statue of the king and includes five cooks in two groups. Where was this tablet written, and who used these five cooks? The capital town of the time was Ur, but the month names of Ur in this period are well-known, and the month names on this tablet and others of the same archive are quite different, so Ur is not the town where this tablet was written. But this document is part of the government’s bureaucratic affairs, since the king’s messengers are being paid. One may suspect it comes from a palace in a town where metal-smithery was famous, run by bureaucrats for the king. This dynasty was highly organised.’

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