Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0377
Circa

2033 BC

Dimensions

4.49″ (11.4cm) high x 2.48″ (6.3cm) 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:

‘Some damage to the corners of the obverse, and the bottom of the reverse, but most of the text is clear in a good, large scribal hand. This is an inventory of precious and semi-precious items, but some of the explanations of the nature of this collection are not yet clear, though they are clearly written.

Translation:

[……] of bronze. 1 copper socket overlaid with silver. 4 wooden sockets overlaid with gold. 7 wooden sockets overlaid with silver. 1 wooden socket overlaid with bronze. 12 small bronze rings. 7 bronze toggle pins. 6 copper sun disks. 2 copper mugs. 5 necklaces of lapis: their gold rings: 32, their silver rings: 56, their chalcedony stones: 2 (or:120), their lapis stones: 6 (or: 360), their long carnelian beads: 2 […..]. their carnelian rings: [….], their ……: 46. Necklaces for offerings. Property of…….. Month […..] Year: after Shu-Sin, King of Ur, built the west wall “that keeps the Tidnum at bay.”

The date given is the 5th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2033 B.C.

The giving of necklaces to gods was common in this period. It meant giving them to the temples in which statues of the gods and goddesses were kept, in the hope that the necklaces would be put on the statues, though often so much of this kind was given that it ended up in a store rather than on the statues.

To us there is some problem over ‘5 lapis necklaces’ having 6 (or 360) lapis beads, but there may be some solution not clear to us. All the other items seem to exclude the title ‘lapis necklaces.’

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