Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0090
Circa

2039 BC

Dimensions

6.02″ (15.3cm) high x 3.27″ (8.3cm) 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:

‘The tablet is written in a fine scribal hand, and when well preserved is beautifully clear. Each side is divided into two columns. The tablet has been reconstructed from pieces, and most of the obverse is preserved, but less of the reverse. The lower part of the last column is lost, and with it the date and other details. However, a date is given near the top of the second column: the 7th year of Amar-Suena, third king of the Third Dynasty of Ur c.2040 B.C. That may refer to the previous year so that the date of writing will be the 8th year of that king. The document is administrative: a grand summary of work done on government land by serfs, with costs in wages related to types and amounts of work. It is a sophisticated system operating with ‘serf days’, all expressed very concisely. Some of the terms are not yet clear, so a complete translation is not yet possible, especially when the text is far from complete. However, some account of the contents with partial translation is possible.

The tablet begins: […] ploughman serfs […] ox-driver serfs: 1 […], for 12 days Calculation: 14400 serfs for 1 day, 70 gur of barley by the royal measures, 5 sila of barley per serf for 1 day, their labour: 4200 serfs for 1 day, From Ilum-bani, granary superintendant

The gur and sila are measures of capacity, for measuring barley as wages for the serfs. The gur was composed of 300 sila, which was about .85 of a litre. Thus the arithmetic is correct: 300 gur are 21000 sila, and if each serf gets 5 sila per diem, the total of serfs will be 4200, as stated. But what are the 14400 serfs doing? The normal precision of these documents does not allow us to reject it as an error. The end of the first column totals what precedes: Total: 25749 serfs for 1 day. The next line is missing, but the following lines state: From this: 120 5/ 6, 6 gin: a serf for 1 day. Supplementary accounting for the year: Huhnuri was destroyed.

A gin is a 60th of a sila, but then the preceding number should be in sila measures, and the result is: ‘120 sila 56 gin per serf,’ which seems to be too much after the 5 sila previously. A detailed study of all Ur III documents of this category would probably solve these problems.’

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