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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - CT.029
Origin: Central Asia
Circa: 2029 BC
Dimensions: 2.08" (5.3cm) high x 1.65" (4.2cm) 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 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. - (CT.029)


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