Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU CT.026
Circa

2027 BC

Dimensions

2.67″ (6.8cm) high x 1.81″ (4.6cm) wide

Medium

Clay

Origin

Central Asia

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 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 23 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse, reverse and left edge; an administrative document from the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the second year of the last king of the dynasty, Ibbi-Sin, c. 2027 BC. It lists rations paid out to the official messengers to sustain them on their travel:

Translation:

1 . . . . . . . . . ., 3 sila of soup 2 fish: : Laqipum, butler, king’s messenger when he went for the king’s offering.

2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Arshi-ah, king’s messenger, when he went to Ur-Ishdu, the groom worker of the palace farmland.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Ur-Mes-maha, king’s messenger.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Lu-gina, king’s messenger when they went from Der to the king.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Shulgi-tabin, king’ s messenger when he went tot Der.

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Pululu, groom when he went to Andhebaran-zikum.

Disbursement of the month Kirsi’ak. Year: the highest priestess of Innana of Uruk was chosen by divination. Lefft edge: 6th day.

The interest of this text compared with published “messenger texts” of this kind, is that the purpose of these trips is explained. With the publication of more of this type it will be possible to write about this network of travelling royal servants and their functions in life at the time. A sila is a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. The tablet is written in large, clear scribal hand and is in excellent condition.

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