An Archaic Ration Text

Several thousand archaic economic documents from around 3000 BC have been excavated, mostly from Uruk.  The tablet below, NBC 5828, from the Yale Babylonian Collection, is a typical example.

Picture of tablet

The tablet is read right to left and top to bottom.  The tablet is divided into regions, called 'cases'.  Each case contains one piece of information, such as how much was being delivered, what it was and who the recipient was.  The quantity signs are fairly well understood (see the Sumerian notation page), as are some of the more common signs, but much is still obscure.  Tablets are usually studied from copies, where the signs can be more readily seen.  Making copies of tablets, especially broken or damaged ones, is a hard-won skill of the Sumerologist.  Below is a cleaned-up copy of the same tablet (based on the copy in MSVO 4,60).

The double line dividing the top row from the rest of the tablet indicates that there are two different accounts.  In the bottom account, there are 7 disbursements of differing amounts, of one, two, or three wedges of grain.  The total is 11 wedges.  In the lowest row is given the total: a circle and 5 wedges.  From this, and other similar, corroborating tablets, we see that one circle must equal 6 wedges.  In this way, the metrological systems were pieced together with the relative sizes of the units.  How those units relate to our units, is another, and much more difficult matter.

I thank Professor W.W. Hallo for permission to use the image of the tablet.

Go to Mesopotamian Mathematics.

Last modified: 26 September 2002

Duncan J. Melville