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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0211
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2030 BC
Dimensions: 1.93" (4.9cm) high x 1.65" (4.2cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings
Style: Cuneiform

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:

‘Condition good save for one chip off the bottom of the reverse. An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 8th year of Shu- Sin, fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2030 B.C. The text is rare for its content and in part very difficult, but it seems to be recording the assignment of a non-citizen to an official to take to take the place of a recently deceased herdsman.


Ipiq-Adad, not…., son of Ilum-rabi, taken on the street via Ur-mes, governor: because a herdsman had died, Iddin-ilum commissar, son of Shu-Ashtar, took. Ur-mes was governor. Month: Festival of Shulgi. Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, constructed a magnificent barge for Enlil and Ninlil.

“Taken on the street” seems to be a term for “foundling,” since “found on the street” is a well attested phrase. Thus it seems that this foundling was in effect a slave to members of the governing class, and his child held the same status.’ - (AM.0211)


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