Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0153

2027 BC


3.46″ (8.8cm) high x 1.69″ (4.3cm) wide




Eastern Mediterranean

Gallery Location



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:

‘Condition very good if not excellent. An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the second year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty c.2027 BC. It lists rations issued to official messengers and others:


30 sila of beer, 30 sila of bread: Shulgi-mati, rider, king’s messenger. 15 sila of beer, 15 sila of bread: Puzur-Sin, son of the Grand Vizier. 10 sila of bread: soldiers. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Puzur-Mamma, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ali- nisu, king’s messenger when they went to call up men to pile up the barley. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Su-bali, Elamite, king’s messenger when he went to….5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Shu-Sin, king’s messenger when he went to Diniktum, 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Shu-Ishtaran, king’s messenger, 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Lu-dugga king’s messenger when they went to the governor. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Bishe’a, king’s messenger when he went to Der, 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ishar-nisi, king’s messenger when he went from Shimashkum to the king, 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shu-Ninshubur when he went to Hurtum. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Lugal-amarku, the….when he went for crushed salt. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Daki-ilum, barber when he went for the cornel. Disbursement of the month Shugarra. Year: the high priestess of Uruk was chosen by divination. Left edge: 9th day.

The sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. It is an obvious kind of measure for beer, but not for bread. The ancients never explain this. Perhaps they measured the flour not the baked product. The particular interest of this tablet is that it often states the purpose of the travel, something not found in published tablets of this category.’

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