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HOME : Near Eastern Art : Cuneiform Tablets : Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet
Sumerian Cuneiform Tablet - LK.126
Origin: Eastern Mediterranean
Circa: 2029 BC
Dimensions: 2.6" (6.6cm) high x 1.8" (4.6cm) wide
Collection: Ancient Writings
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:

‘The tablet dates to the Third Dynasty of Ur and is dated to the 9th year of Shu-Sin, the fourth king of the dynasty, c. 2029 B.C. The text is an administrative document: a listing of materials meant for a refurbishing of a temple:


[…] …. of a beam: its weight 50 shekels. 2 inscribed tablets of algames-stone: weight 1 mina 13 shekels. 2 reed mats, their outer surfaces coated with bitumen: 2 cubits long, 1 cubit wide. To the account of the temple area of the temple of Nin-isina. Month: festival of (the god) Lisi. Year: Shu-Sin, king of Ur, built the temple of Shara in Uma.

A shekel was a weight, not a coin, about 8 grams. 60 shekels made one mina. Some of the inscriptions can be read: Lu-………., Scribe, son of Lu-Ababa.

This is a typical example of the bureaucracy of this dynasty: every little item of spending on official purposes had to be recorded in writing and filed in clay boxes.’ - (LK.126)


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