Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0088

2040 BC to 2000 BC


3.5″ (8.9cm) high x 2.09″ (5.3cm) 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. The following is a transcription of his analysis of this tablet:

‘The tablet is written in a large, clear scribal hand and the script is well preserved. The top and bottom edges appear to have traces of very small writing, now erased, and the left-hand edge does have two very short lines of small script. It also has a hole, showing that originally it was on a string for attachment to something. At this time the script was still read downwards from the upper right. It is an account tablet listing items paid out of some large economic establishment such as a temple or palace.


30 sila of bread 9 sila of cake 6 sila of ‘oil bread’: Eshesh-festival, for the king 8 gur, 232 sila of beer 9 gur 153 sila of bread 60 sila of cake: A king’s messenger: two disbursements 8 gur of beer: the weaving slave-girls with Ali-lissu 1 gur, 240 sila of beer: the oil-pressing slave-girls, the grinding slave girls and the fattening-house slave-girls 1 gur , 288 sila of beer 294 sila of bread: porters 15 gur, 180 sila of beer assessors and …..s 4 gur, 270 sila of bread: fodder for palace lions and dogs, 50 of them Disbursements, accountings….. Adad-rabi, manager Month: Shunigal Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination Left edge: [….] Puzur-Ningi […], Lu-Baba

The measurements used are those of capacity: the gur and the sila. The latter was about .85 of a litre, and a gur was 300 sila. It is nowhere explained how bread and cake were measured with these measures, but perhaps the flour was measured, not the baked product. The tablet gives an interesting insight into the life of those days. Lions were kept in captivity.’

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