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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - LK.141
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2027 BC
Dimensions: 3.58" (9.1cm) high x 1.89" (4.8cm) 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:

‘Clay tablet, 91 x 48mm., with a total of 38 lines of Sumerian cuneiform on obverse, reverse and left edge. The upper part of the tablet has been assembled from pieces, with some loss of surface, but the remaining script is well preserved, and most of the tablet can be read and understood. It is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 2nd year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty, c. 2027 B.C. It is a list of rations issued to official messengers:


[…[ roast [sheep], 5 sila of soup, [5 fish: …] Sin, deputy grand vizier [When] he went to [ …] the field of Nanna

1 . . . , 3 sila of soup, 2 fish: Laqipum, cup bearer, king’s messenger when he went for the king’s offering

2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Sharrum-bani, king’s messenger

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Sulalum, king’s messenger

1 sila of soup, 1 fish:Shulgi-bani, king’s messenger

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Issur-ilum, king’s messenger when they went to Der

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Abilumma, king’s messenger

1 sila of soup, 1 fish:Nanna-dalla, barber when they went to Der to the king

2 sila of soup, 2 fish: Shaqatum, king’s messenger when he went to arrest the runaway men, servants of Ninhursag

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Abuni, king’s messenger when he went to Diniktum

1 . . . , 3 sila of soup, 2 fish: Ulanish, vizier, king’s messenger when he went to the governor

1 sila of soup, 1 fish: Pululu, groom when he went to Anshebaran-Zikum

[Disbursement of the month Kirs] i-ak

[Year that the high priestess of Inanna of Uruk was] chosen by divination


A sila was a measurement of capacity, about .85 of a litre. The particular interest of this text is that it gives the reasons for these official trips. Previously published tablets of this type lack such information.’ - (LK.141)


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