Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0068

2029 BC


1.93″ (4.9cm) high x 3.35″ (8.5cm) 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 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 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 the decipherment and translation of cuneiform, to examine and process the information on these tablets. His scanned analysis is presented here. The text lists the numbers and types of workers employed at two named places, for example, metal workers and carpenters.

Professor Lambert’s translation is provided below:

Clay tablet, 49x85mm., with 23 lines of writing in Sumerian cuneiform on obverse and reverse. The tablet is joined from two pieces and the whole surface was rolled with the scribe’s cylinder seal, which has obscured many of the signs. Not much of the seal design can be seen, but enough of the seal inscription to see that it was the seal of Lugal-imru’a, who is named toward the end of the document. The text is an administrative document from the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 9th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2029 B.C. The text begins with a list of kinds and numbers of workers in the state sector of two named places, then continues with other relevant details, which end with the date. While the numbers of the workers can be read in all cases, the names of the types of men are often too feint to read:


144 metal workers

1204 smiths

192 . . .

144 . . .

1533 carpenters

572 leather workers

285 . . .

1440 basket makers for 1 day

……….. for the cities Uru-sagrig and Anzagar

when the . . . s did not go

. . . ba was overseer

via Lugal-imru’a

A disbursement

Year: Shu-Sin, king, built the temple of Shara in Umma

The huge numbers of certain professions may surprise, but there is an explanation: in the line “for 1 day.” The ancient scribes were making calculations about use of stocks of foodstuffs used as wages. The figures are no doubt for one month: the total of days worked by e.g. smiths during a 30-day month. So each figure has to be divided by 30 to get the actual number of workmen on average in each profession for each notional day. In practice it would vary from day to day: more smiths working some days than other, but for the scribes in charge of running the state, the total for each month was the importat thing. Note that only the higher professions are covered. The greatest number of men working would be working in the fields and on irrigation, as labourers. – (AM.0068)

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