Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet

SKU AM.0104
Circa

2027 BC

Dimensions

3.23″ (8.2cm) high x 1.81″ (4.6cm) wide

Medium

Terracotta

Origin

Eastern Mediterranean

Gallery Location

UK


 

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. The following is a transcription of his analysis of this tablet:

‘This is a tablet from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 2nd year of Ibbi- Sin, last king of the dynasty, c.2027 B.C. It is an administrative document giving the quantities of food and drink issued to royal messengers. The tablet is in virtually perfect condition.

Translation:

30 sila of beer, 30 sila of bread: Mr Ur-Shu- Sin, deputy grand vizier when he went to the commissar of the Field of Nanna. 10 sila of beer, 10 sila of bread: Mr Laqipum, cup- bearer, king’s messenger when he went for the king’s offerings. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Nabi-Sin, king’s messenger when he went from Der to the king. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila bread: Mr Abu-tab, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Ur-Shulpa’e king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Nur-Shulgi, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Adad-illati, king’s messenger when they went to Der. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Shu-qatum, king’s messenger when he went to seize the fugitive slaves of Ninhursag. 10 sila of beer, 10 sila of bread: Mr Ulanish, vizier, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Ur-Baba, scribe of the king. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Mr Ili-satu, the… man when they went to the city governor. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Mr Bululu, groom when he went to Anshe-baran-Zikum. Disbursement of the month Kirisi-ak. Year: the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was chosen by divination. Left edge: 24th day.

Tablets of this general category have been known before, but this one is important for giving in many cases the purpose of the journeys of these messengers. Previously published tablets do not give these interesting and important details.

A sila was about .85 of a litre, which fits the beer as a measure of capacity, but to our view it hardly suits bread. Perhaps it measures the flour that went into the bread, not the baked product.

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