Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet


2400 BC to 2200 BC


3.0″ (7.6cm) high x 2.45″ (6.2cm) 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, 77 x 60 mm, with 18 compartments of Sumerian Cuneiform This is roughly oblong, with rounded sides and corners. The obverse is divided into two columns with a total of 18 compartments, the reverse is blank. It dates to the Akkadian period, c. 2400-2200 BC, and is an administrative document about sheep, the standard domestic animal in Sumer. The first compartment states ‘six sheep’ and the second line gives a man’s name. The following compartments in the first column consist of numbers followed by men’s names, and in each case ‘sheep’ is to be understood though not written. The final column has one line only of this type, and may be giving details of time and circumstance, but so far it has not been deciphered. If the sheep are being given to the named men, then it is a list of wages being paid (in kind), but if the men are handing over the sheep, then it is some form of taxation that is being documented. The ancient scribe and his boss understood perfectly what was happening, and did not need to explain things for our benefit. No doubt in time with further discoveries and study everything will come clear.

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