Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0325

2027 BC


3.54″ (9.0cm) high x 1.77″ (4.5cm) 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. His scanned analysis is presented here. This document is a list of rations paid out to official messengers.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

‘Clay tablet with a total of 30 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on the obverse, reverse and left edge. The condition is fine. 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 is a listing of rations issued to official messengers.


30 sila of beer, 30 sila of bread: Shulgi-mati, rider, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Nega, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Puzur-Mamma, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Sharrum-Bani, king’s messenger when they went to call up workers to thrash sesame. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Ur-Eninnu, king’s messenger when he went for barley. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Nanna-isha, king’s messenger when he went to Kimash. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Anati, king’s messenger when he went to Der. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Lugal-amar-ku, sculptor when he went for spices. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Daqi-ilum, barber when he went for cornel twigs. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ur-Shulpa’e, shepherd of the lion when he went for the lion. Disbursement of the month Shuniggal. Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination. 25th day.

A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre: obvious for measuring beer, but not obvious for bread, something never explained by the ancient scribes. Perhaps the flour, not the baked product, was measured in this way.

The occurrence of a captive lion is not unique, though allusions to such are rare. It seems that one man was trained to look after such lions. Wild lions did exist in ancient Mesopotamia.’

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