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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - AM.0331
Origin: Central Asia
Circa: 2028 BC
Dimensions: 3.78" (9.6cm) high x 1.85" (4.7cm) wide
Collection: Near Eastern
Medium: Clay


Location: Great Britain
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Description
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:

‘The text is an administrative document from the period of the Third Dynasty of Ur, dated to the first year of Ibbi-Sin, last king of the dynasty, c.2028 BC. It is a list of rations issued to official messengers.

Translation:

5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Shu-Nunu, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Hunekal, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Pushu-Kin, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Sharrum-ili, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Lugal-ezen, king’s messenger when they went to call up barley-harvesting men. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Shu- Ninshubur, king’s messenger. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Kinamussi?, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Pushu, king’s messenger when they went to Me….tum. 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ur- Shulgira, king’s messenger when he went for the oil of Ahuni. 20 sila of beer, 20 sila of bread: 1 sila of date cake: Shu-Shulgi, son of the grand vizier when he went to the governor. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Nur- ili, king’s messenger. 5 sila of beer, 5 sila of bread: Sharrum-ili, king’s messenger when he….ed the messenger of the governor of Harshi. In the city: 3 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Ikum-meshar, dog warden. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Nanna-uru, the …… ..man. 2 sila of beer, 2 sila of bread: Henti, the …..man when he went to …… a. Disbursement of the month Shugarra. Year: Ibbi-Sin, king. 20th day. Total: 78 sila of beer. Total: 75 sila of bread. Total: 1 sila of date cake.

The arithmetic in the totals is correct. The sila was a measure of capacity, about .85 of a litre. Its use for beer is clear, but not for bread, and the ancients never help us. Perhaps the flour was measured in this way, not the baked product. The tablet is important for giving the reasons for some of these trips, which published tablets of this kind do not.’ - (AM.0331)

 

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