Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU CT.025

2028 BC


2.48″ (6.3cm) high x 1.57″ (4.0cm) wide




Central Asia

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 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 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 control. Most of what we know about the way the culture was run and administered comes from the cuneiform tablets, which record the everyday running of the temple and palaces 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 tablet consists of 17 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse, reverse and left edge. An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the first year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty, c. 2028 BC. It lists rations paid out to official messengers to sustain them on their travels:


5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Shu-Mamma, king’s messenger.

3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: lala, king’s messenger when they went to give . . . . . . pitch to the city governor.

3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ziram, king’s messenger when he went to the . . . . . field.

Disbursement, of the month “Festival of Shulgi”. Year: Ibbi-Sin, king. Left edge: 16th Day.

A sila was a measure of a capacity, about .85 of a litre. For beer it is obvious, but the ancient texts never explain how bread was so measured. Perhaps the flour rather than the baked product was measured. This is a so-called “messenger tablet”, but unlike others previously published this one explains the purpose of the various trips. When such information is collated it will give us a mych better understanding of the organization of this very bureaucratic period. There is some chipping of the edges, but most of the text remains very clear.

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