Sumerian Cuneiform Terracotta Tablet

SKU LSO.1028

2028 BC


2.04″ (5.2cm) high x 1.77″ (4.5cm) wide




Central Asia

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

Clay Tablet with 12 Lines of Sumerian Cuneiform The tablet is in very good condition save for a small gash on the right hand edge. It is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to a month of the 1st year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty, c.2028 B.C. The whole surface has been rolled with the cylinder seal of the scribe, to show the seal inscription naming the scribe. It reads:

Lugal-imru(a), scribe, son of Lu-Ababa The content of the document is a great mixture, some of which is distinctly obscure, but much can be understood;


4 sila of allaharum (a mineral dye) niqtum (a plant).

6 minas: a gerder to go in front of behind the plow oxen, Ninhursanga by name……….

2 serfs for one day: on the king’s …….. (seal inscription).

Month: the plow. Year: Ibbi-Sin, king.

The first item is about 3 1?2 litres of dye-stuff , presumably received from whoever provided it. The 6 minas are probably the wage or cost (if a slave) of a herder for ploughing with oxen. The two serfs are merely assigned work for one day: their remuneration would be automatic from their usual overseer. A very mixed bag of items dealt with by the scribe on one day. The day is not in fact noted: the tablet would be put in a box with others written on the same day: a filing system, with a tag attached to the box giving relevant details. – (LSO.1028)

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