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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0122
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2029 BC
Dimensions: 3.11" (7.9cm) high x 1.89" (4.8cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings

Location: Great Britain
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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:

‘The tablet is written in a clear scribal hand, and has been joined from two pieces. The reverse is in very good condition, but the obverse has quite an amount of surface damage which obscures some of the text. This is an administrative document dated to the 3rd day of a month not identified in sequence of the 9th year of Shu-Sin, fourth king of the Third Dynasty of Ur, c. 2029 B.C. It lists rations issued to official messengers:


2 sila of soup, 2 fish: in the city…..for the journey: Ahuni, vizier, king’s messenger when he went to take the….of the men of Sagrig. 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: in the city….for the journey: Mr Ur-Shulgira, king’s messenger when he went to… 2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Mr Enlil-rabi, rider, king’s messenger. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Ili-atti, king’s messenger when they went to the governor. 1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Mr Ili-bani, king’s messenger when he went to take the… Disbursement of the month Nigega. Year: after Shu-Sin, king of Ur, built the West Wall: which keeps the Amorites at bay. Left edge: 3rd day.

A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre.’ - (AM.0122)


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