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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0333
Origin: Central Asia
Circa: 2240 BC to 2200 BC
Dimensions: 3.54" (9.0cm) high x 1.97" (5.0cm) wide
Collection: Near Eastern
Medium: Clay

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:

‘An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, not dated, but c. 2240-2200 BC. It is a record of grain and pulses in smallish quantities with named persons for each item or group of items.


60 sila of barley groats Pishah-ilum. 60 sila of fine emmer flour Ganda. 20 sila of chick- peas. 20 sila of lentils, second quality, via Sin-bani, son of Ur-Baba. 60 sila of fine flour Ir-Nanna. 10 sila of chick-peas. 20 sila of fine emmer flour. 60 sila of coriander? 10 sila of mustard Ahuni. 60 sila of fine flour Hanasha.

This was a practical document for use by the scribe who wrote it and his colleagues, so they had no need of explanations. We can only guess at what is implied. Did the named persons receive or hand over the items specified? The quantities are relevant. A sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. Thus 60 sila of flour was no small amount. If the men received the goods as wages, it would need storage space in the average household. But it is possible that the men handed in these things, which they had grown, as taxes to the government. From one document like this no final decision is possible.’ - (AM.0333)


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