Sumerian Cuneiform Terracotta Tablet

SKU LSO.1031
Circa

2029 BC to 2028 BC

Dimensions

2.5″ (6.4cm) high x 1.75″ (4.4cm) 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 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 here. Clay Tablet, 65 x 45 mm, with 16 lines of Sumerian Cuneiform This is almost perfectly preserved and every sign is legible. The ancient scribe erased the final line he wrote, which may have been the date. The tablet is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, and concerns weaving. Translation: 29 full-rations slave girls 60 half-rations slave girls Month: the plow, end of 7th day, from Year: the high priestess of Eridu was chosen To: Month: Shunigal Year: the high priestess of Nanna of Karzida was installed Years: 2 Months: 11 and 23 days Their rations: 10200: 213 ½ slave girls per diem 5 complete cloth beams, 20…… Ur-Hendursag, clerk of the weavers, received From Puzur-Adad, foreman of the weavers This is a monthly kind of balance sheet for an ancient Sumerian textile factory, which employed slave girls for most of the labour. It was compiled at the end of a calendar month (7 and 23 add up to 30: the days of a Sumerian month, which was lunar). The calculations require comment. The first year-name is that of the 8th year of Amar-Sin, third king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2029 BC, and the second year name is that of the 9th year of the same king, so c. 2028 BC. So two years are involved, but by our method of subtracting the period would be one year only. And in fact the period was less than 12 months: only 11 months 23 days. The totals however are not explained. One may guess that 10200 means that number of silas of barley, the normal payment in such factories, and the total stated was no doubt obtained simply from records of the quantity of barley issued by the paymaster, but how the 213 ½ was obtained is not clear. The half is well known in such documents, and is easily explicable as a statistic from “full-time equivalents” being calculated from many part- time workers. The cloth beams and the “20……” (a word of unknown meaning, but definitely part of a loom) show that these slave girls wore out the looms from time to time. – (LSO.1031)

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