Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU LSO.1000

2030 BC


6.25″ (15.9cm) high x 5″ (12.7cm) wide





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 with Sumerian Cuneiform Inscription 157 x 128 mm This is an oblong tablet, flat on the obverse, convex on the reverse. It is complete save for the missing bottom left hand corner. Each side is divided into four columns of script, which is in a good, clear Neo- Sumerian hand. The columns on the obverse are all filled but on the reverse the writing is more spaced and there are big gaps in three of the columns: the scribe had room to spare when he turned over (top to bottom, not side to side). The text is an administrative document dated to the 30th day of the month Gisigga of the 7th year of Amar-Sin, third king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2040 BC. The month Gisigga belongs to a series not very well known, and for the moment we do not know which month of the twelve it was. The document is a list of cattle owned by a temple on this particular day of the year. The animals are divided into herds, each under its own named herder. It is, then, a piece of ancient stocktaking, done on the last day of the month. Altogether there are 13 such herds, each and all presented in the same style. We translate the first two here, then give the following 9 in simplified columnar arrangement. The final 2 are largely covered with hard encrustation (which could be removed). Translation The first: The second: 28 mature cows 32 mature cows 5 three-year-old cows 7 three- year-old cows 9 two-year-old cows 7 two-year- old cows 8 one-year-old cows 7 one-year- old cows 2 bulls 3 bulls 2 two-year-old oxen 3 two-year- old oxen 8 one-year-old oxen 10 one- year-old oxen were present were present Total 62 cattle present Total 69 cattle present Ishtar-nu’id herder […… a]kshuha herder The Roman numerals are of the sections on the tablet, the Arabic numerals are the numbers of cattle in the sequence of the above first two sections: III IV V VI VII VIII IX X XI Mature cows [ ] 9 20 66 22 32 39 49 38 3 yr old cows [ ] 9 4 14 3 3 6 11 3 2 yr old cows [ ] 15 6 18 7 7 8 8 5 1 yr old cows [ ] 4 3 12 3 10 8 8 6 Bulls [ ] 5 2 3 – 1 – 3 – 2 year old oxen 5 2 16 18 2 4 7 11 – 1 yr old oxen 7 1 4 23 7 7 – 14 10 The herders of the various herds are named as the following: III Apil-Bitim IV Shi-Eshtar V Enum-ili VI Ilam-nada VII Elak-ni’id VIII Mumu IX Dudu X Kuku XI Puzur-Ashki (The last two are concealed beneath encrustation) Followijng on this listing of 14 herds in all detail, the tablet continues with summaries: first a total of each type of animal as specified in the 13 lists, then the grand total of all the cattle: 954. The concluding section reads: Cows of the E-tur-silla temple, Pazanum chief herder Shu-Eshtar, chief herder took from Ur- Mes, Via Babati, scribe and via Lugal-melam, governor of Nippur Month Gisigga, 30th day, year: Huhnuri was destroyed. This is a major tablet for the social history of cattle rearing in Sumer. One observes that each herd was self-contained, with generally the same types of animals. Cows are recorded as of one, two, three years old, but older than that they are lumped together they as ‘mature’. Each herd had only few bulls, and they are never assigned an age. Of oxen only those one or two years old are cited: never three years or more. Herds could completely lack the normal types, for example herds no’s VII, IX and XI had no bulls. No doubt temple authorities arranged for the loan of bulls between herds for breeding purposes. Cattle had a particular status in Sumer. Due to lack of suitable pasture for cattle during much of the year, sheep and goats were the normal domestic animals of private persons. Only temples and the palace would keep cattle. Hence the care with which cattle were treated.

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