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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
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Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0150
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2040 BC
Dimensions: 3.35" (8.5cm) high x 1.69" (4.3cm) 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 very good. An administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the 7th year of Amar-Suena, third king of the dynasty, c. 2040 BC. It is a list of rations issued to official messengers:


5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Iddi-Erra, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Iddi-ilum, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Ur-nigingar, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Aqtunum, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Ur-Ishtaran, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Sin-bani, king’s messenger when they went on a tour of the farm land. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: in the town. 10 sila of beer, 10 sila of bread: for the journey: Ilum-rabi, king’s messenger when he went for flour. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ni- Baba, king’s messenger when he went to Der. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Sikilti, king’s messenger when he went to Hurtum. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ur-Lamma, king’s messenger when he went to arrest the runaway men, palace servants. Disbursement of the month Ni-Enlilla. Year: Huhnuri was destroyed. 3rd day.

The sila is a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. Beer is obviously measured in such a measure, but what about bread? The ancients never tell us how bread was so measured. Perhaps the flour rather than the baked product was measured. The year name refers to Amar-Suena’s conquest of the town of Huhnuri, which was somewhere in West Iran, precise location not known.’ - (AM.0150)


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