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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - LK.143
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2047 BC to 2038 BC
Dimensions: 4.76" (12.1cm) high x 3.07" (7.8cm) 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, 121 x 78 mm, with four columns of Sumerian cuneiform and a total of 56 lines, the tablet being composed from pieces in part, with some loss of surface, especially at the bottom of the last column. However, the greater part remains and is clear. This is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur. The precise date is lost with the last few lines, but since on of the persons named is called an officer of Amar-Suena (the third king of the dynasty) we should conclude that this was written under that king, who reigned c. 2047-2038 B.C. It is a list collecting data of documents received in a central store recording quantities of the three types of grain they grew: barley, emmer and wheat. It appears that the store-keepers received a large number of consignments at harvest time recorded on tablets written by named scribes, who were responsible for checking the quantities and recording them. The measures used were of capacity, not of weight: the sila and the gur. A sila was about .85 of litre, and a gur was 300 sila. We use the dot to indicate:


.1=1 sila

1.1=1 gur, 1 sila

The background of this document is that land to be fertile had to be irrigated, and this could only be done communally, so land mostly belonged to the state. As the spring floods subsided the irrigated land was divided into plots, and persons were assigned particular plots and paid with a percentage of the crop at harvest. Scribes recorded what each land holder has paid in, and passed the documents (the grain being checked in by staff) to the officials in charge of the official stores. When no grain is specified, it was barley.


[…..] gur: [document of …], miller

[….] .. gur of emmer: document of Puzur- Mamma

[…] .. gur of emmer: document of Ur- Ninisina

4 gur of emmer: document of Ur-Shulpa’e

16.265 sila gur: document of Iluma-rabi, head gardener

5 gur: document of Ur-baba

2 gur: document of Silli-Ashgi, son of Pu- Kakka

7 gur: document of Abba, scribe

2.30 gur: document of Ashgi-bani, head sailor

7.60 gur of emmer: document of Inbum, scribe

1 gur

12.220 gur of emmer: document of Titi […}

20.160 gur; 1.70 gur of emmer; 2 gur of wheat: document of Shanum, overseer

33.150 gur: document of Iddin-AB

33.20 gur: document of Ashki-bani, son of Ashki-al . . .

82.225 sila-gur: document of Turum-ili, son of Shu-Ninshubur

13.30+ . . . sila-gur: document of Ilum-bani, brother of the governor

1.30 gur: document of Ku-Nanna

4.193 sila-gur: document of Ana, singer

2.240 gur: document of Puzur-Mamma, manager of the temple of Ashki

5 gur: document of Shu-Ashtar, the store keeper

4.150: docment of Shukuge

.180: document of Qurudsa manager of Mashkan-Pusha

1.60 gur of wheat: document of Zizi, son of Ur-Shulpa’e

.150: document of Ur-Abzu

1 gur: document of Mashum son of Nene

.180: document of Bur-Mamma, clerk of the slave-girl sesame pressers

.157 sila: document of Nur-E’a his son

2.120: document of Ur-Ninisina, purification priest of Nimush

.230: document of Shu-Mamma, purification priest of Shulpa’e (1 line lost)

. . . . *: document of Nuhi-ilum purification priest of Dumuzi

.17 sila: document of Ili-ashranni, , purification priest of Shulpa’e

…..*: document of Iddin-AB, brewer of Amar-Suena

1.270: document of Puzur-Erra, scribe

Summary of document

[….]….+230 sila-gur of barley

[….]….quantity available

[….]….the store-keepers (some lines lost)


*These two sets of figures have been erased by an ancient scribe.’ - (LK.143)


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