Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0190

2030 BC to 2020 BC


2.72″ (6.9cm) high x 1.81″ (4.6cm) 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:

‘Condition fine. An administrative document, not dated, but to be assigned to the later part of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2030 -2020 B.C. It is a list of areas of irrigated land assigned to named persons, the land measured in the iku-measure, which is about 3500 square metres.


108 iku: Shurush-kin. 54 iku: Lu-Nanna. 54 iku: Iddi’-Erra clerk: the Grand Vizier. 180 iku: Shulgi-nada, cup-bearer, clerk: the zabardab-official. 72 iku: Shu-Sin-mishar, chef, clerk: Nigin-gar. 36 iku: Dan-ili. 108 iku: Shu-Shulgi, clerk: Amur-ili. Total: 612 iku, the Fir-tree estate. Via Utul-Mamma, king’s messenger.

The land is being assigned to these men as wages for services to the crown. They would appoint workers to do the actual work on the land to produce crops, and the wages of these workers would still leave a handsome profit for the person holding the land. With irrigation land in Sumer produced heavier yields, especially of barley, than other areas around. The method used assured that the land would be well used with the minimum of official scrutiny: those holding the land would suffer loss if the land was neglected.’

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