Sumerian Cuneiform Terracotta Tablet

SKU LSO.1032

2080 BC to 2010 BC


2.5″ (6.4cm) high x 1.75″ (4.4cm) 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 here. Clay tablet, 63 x 45 mm, with 14 lines of Sumerian Cuneiform. This tablet is not dated, but can easily be assigned to the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2080-2010 BC. It is a list of rations (or wages) issued to unnamed persons of particular professions, some clearly religious, others by our standards perhaps not. Each received a quantity of bread and beer, measured by the sila, a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. Translation: 1 high priestess: 2 sila of bread, 2 sila of beer, 1 sheep’s… 1 anointed priest: 2 sila of bread, 2 sila of beer 1 jester (?) 1……singer 1…… 14 prostitutes: 1 sila of bread, I sila of beer each 2 sila of bread, 2 sila of beer: Ama-kalamma. Total: 23 sila of bread Total: 23 sila of beer Total: 1 sheep’s… Nabi-Adad Nabi-Adad was the scribe who wrote the tablet. Ama-kalamma was a normal woman’s name. The document had an immediate practical purpose and does not tell us what we would like to know. Was this the staff of a small temple? Or could it have been the “spiritual” staff of a palace? The prostitutes would not have been out of place in a Sumerian temple, especially one to the goddess of love, Inanna. There is a little damage to the obverse, which obscures a couple of lines. – (LSO.1032)

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