Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet


2030 BC


3.5″ (8.9cm) high x 1.75″ (4.4cm) wide




Eastern Mediterranean

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 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 it’s 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 decipherment and translation of cuneiform, to examine and process the information on these tablets. His analysis is presented below. Clay tablet, 83 x 46 mm, with 26 lines of Sumerian Cuneiform on obverse and reverse The very bottom of this tablet is lost, but it seems that no line is completely lost, though the last line on the obverse and the first line on the reverse (tablets are turned from top to bottom, not side to side) are incomplete. There us also a patch of lost surface on the reverse side near the bottom, and a smaller one near the top. But the greater part remains and the content is clear. This is an administrative record from the temple of the goddess Ninkar listing her jewellery as a fresh curator took control: 1 pair of silver earrings 16 pairs of lead earrings 1 bronze pot 1 bronze tray 1 bronze jug 2 bronze toggle pins 5 pairs of bronze bracelets 5 pairs of copper bracelets 1 pair of lead bracelets 29 lead rings 1 band of lapis, with 5 gold…and […] silver… Beads of carnelian […] Beads of lapis […] Beads of agate […] Beads.[…]: necklaces…… Property of Ninkar Mr……, the priest, received [Month: barley] harvest [Day…, year]: Shu-Sin, [king] of Ur, built the west wall: which keeps the Tidnum at bay *** The date is the end of their calendar year (about March-April), the 4th year of Shu- Sin, fourth king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2034 BC. Inventories of this kind are rare. The year name alludes to the wall which Shi-Sin built, like the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall, to keep out the migrating Amorites.

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