Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

Circa

2027 BC

Dimensions

3.03″ (7.7cm) high x 1.85″ (4.7cm) 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:

‘An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 2nd year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty, c. 2027 B.C. It lists rations issued to official messengers.

Translation:

3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Sharrum-bani, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ilshu-palil, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shulgi-tapin, king’s messenger when they went from Der to the king. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Quqanum, king’s messenger when he went to Der. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Daya, king’s messenger when he went to Shimashkum. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shaga, king’s messenger when he went from Shimaskum to the king. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ahu-bani, king’s messenger. 3 sila of bread, 2 sila of beer: Mashum, king’s [messenger] when they went to the governor. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shesh-kalla, king’s messenger: sick when he went as a guard over the harvested barley and smote the bandits. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Shu-Adad, barber when he went for cornel twigs. Disbursement of the month Festival of the Fathers. Year: the high priestess of Uruk was chosen by divination. 18th day.

The sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. Beer was naturally measured by capacity, but hardly bread! The ancients never explain this. Perhaps they measured the flour, not the baked product. This tablet is interesting for the information it supplies on the purposes of these travels. Published tablets of this category do not. There is one spot of damage on the reverse and a fine crack on the right-hand edge, otherwise it is fine condition.’

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