Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0147
Circa

2030 BC

Dimensions

6.22″ (15.8cm) high x 2.4″ (6.1cm) 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:

‘It is written in a fine, large scribal hand and is excellently preserved save for slight loss on the corners of the obverse and two patches on the back. There is a crack, but the writing around it is perfectly preserved.

The tablet is an account tablet from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 8th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, but covering the fifth and seventh year of this king also. In our calendar they are c. 2033, 2031 and 2030 BC. It is an account tablet about barley as seen by clerks supervising a big granary under the state.

Translation:

20, 628 gur, 20 sila, 5 1/6 gin: at 2 1/2 sila per man per day remainder in the balanced account. Year after: Shu-Sin, King of Ur built the west wall, ‘Which keeps the Tidnum at bay.’ Total: from which: 20 gur of barley, document of Pizeze, scribe to be put to the account: year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur destroyed the land of Zabshalu. 20 gur of barley, document of Pizeze, scribe to be put to the account: year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur made the exalted barge for Enlil and Ninlil. Total: 40 gur of barley. Disbursement: deficit [….] for 1 day 6 sila of barley each… [Its] value in silver: […] minas: surplus [….] gur of barley. The surplus absorbs the deficit: The deficit: 19408 gur, 20 sila, 5 1/6 gin: at 2 1/2 sila per man per day. The deficit:…. The balanced account: from the year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, erected a magnificent stele for Enlil and Ninlil, to the year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, made the exalted barge for Enlil and Ninlil, Total: 3 years.

Barley is measured in units of capacity: the sila being about .85 of a litre. A gur was 300 sila, and a gin, 1/60 of a sila. There is much in the above which is not fully clear to us: the ancient clerks had no intention of making things clear to later generations: they worked for their own ends.’

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