Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0089
Circa

2040 BC

Dimensions

2.4″ (6.1cm) high x 2.72″ (6.9cm) 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:

'This is an administrative tablet dated to the 7th year of Amar-Suena, third king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2040 B.C. It is a list of chairs and doors and door-parts with materials and measurements specified, an altogether rare tablet. The only hint about the origin and use of these materials comes at the end, where the material is charged to ‘the house of Amar-Suena.’ It is not clear whether this is the royal palace or Amar- Suena’s mausoleum, which was built during his lifetime. In any case the materials were provided by the state and were reckoned to be for state purposes. Some of the words used are rare and of uncertain meaning. The measurements are in the gar and cubit: a gar being 12 cubits. For simplicity we have converted everything into cubits. That measure was about .5 of a metre.

Translation:

26……..seats of shakel-wood overlaid with bronze, padded with leather 1 door of pomegranate wood, 12 cubits long, 3 1/2 cubits wide 1 door of pomegranate wood, 11 1/2 cubits long, 3 1/2 cubits wide 1 door of pomegranate wood, 10 cubits long, 3 1/2 cubits wide [1 door] of pomegranate wood [….] 2 2/3 cubits wide 5 doors of …padded with leather, 9 cubits long, 2 1/2 cubits wide 3 bolts of choice…., with three….bolts each of choice steatite 3 door pivots….with three door-pivots each of choice steatite […] gates of fir, 4 [cubits each], with […] rosettes each of ….stone 10 gates of fir, 5 cubits each, …rosettes of… .stone, 12 each, and 15 inscriptions each 8 gates of fir, 8 1/2 cubits each 61 planks (?) of fir, their…..6 cubits each [….] on their surfaces, 2 2/3 cubits long, 2 cubits wide 4 door pivots, small, pitch on their surfaces 4 small bolts, fine quality, pitch on their surfaces 4 small ‘straight hands’, the bitumen 15 sila put to the account of the house of Amar- Suena Disbursement of the month Ezen-adara Year: Huhnuri was destroyed.

A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. This is a remarkable tablet, but, alas, much of the detail of the decoration of the doors is hidden from us so far with rare or hitherto unknown words. And such doors have of course been lost due to the wet soil of Sumer and human agency. With no less than 15 inscriptions per gate one wonders exactly what was written, when only scribes could read and write.'

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