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 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 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 control. Most of what
we know about the way the culture was run and
administered comes from the cuneiform tablets,
which record the everyday running of the temple
and palaces 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:
This clay tablet consists of 16 lines of Sumerian
cuneiform on obverse and reverse, very slight
damage to the top line of the reverse, the rest in
very good condition. An administrative
document from the period of the Third Dynasty
of Ur, dated to the 9th year if Shu-Sin, 4th king
of the dynasty, c. 2029 BC. It details food stuffs
given out to three metal workers.
1/3 mina, 4 shekels of soup.
12 shekels of barley: document of KA.LIM out to
the account of:
The temple of Ashgi.
The temple of Ili-simtisha.
The temple of Amar-Sin.
Rations for metal workers: 3 serfs for one day
when the king came/went via Iddi-Adad, scribe.
Month: Asig-festival. Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur,
built the temple of Shara in Uma.
This is a rare and unusual document. First, soup
and grain is normally measured by capacity, but
here it was, it seems, weighed. A shekel was
1/60 of a mina and a mina weighed about 500
grams. Secondly, this amount of food was
charged to four temples: Ashgi was city god of
the town Addab, the other three temple owners
were humans. The first, Ili-simtisha was a
woman, no doubt a spouse of a king. The last
two were third and fourth kings of the dynasty. It
has long been known that kings of this dynasty
were worshipped even in their life times, but this
may be the first evidence of a woman being
worshipped. Finally, the occasion of this pay-out
is that the “king went/came”. The ancient scribe
knew exactly what happened, but we do not.