Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU CT.028

2028 BC


2.51″ (6.4cm) high x 1.65″ (4.2cm) 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 clay tablet consists of 26 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse, reverse and left edge. Slightly surface rubbing, otherwise in very good condition. 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 is a listing of rations issued to official messengers to feed them on their travels.


5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Shulubum, king’s messenger when he went to call up the. . . . . workers.

5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Andul, scribe when he went to exchange the . . . . . .

3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Puzur-Ishtar king’s messenger when he went for wool.

3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: . . . .-bani, king’s messenger when he went to arrest the bandits.

2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ku-Ningal, butler.

2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Aza-bani, butler when they went from Der to the king.

5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Kallamu, king’s messenger.

2 sila of bread: Shu-Adad, groom.

2 sila of bread: Sin-andul, groom when they went to Anshebaran-zikum.

Disbursement of the extra barley harvest month. Year: Ibbi-Sin king. Left Edge: 6th day.

The interest of this tablet is that while it belongs to a well-known type of “messenger tablets”, all published so far simply give the names and amounts of provisions, but this one often gives the reasons for the trips. In time with more of this kind a fuller understanding of the economic organization of this dynasty will become clear. The extra month was inserted every so often to keep the lunar calendar in line with the sun.

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