Height: 4.5 cm
Width: 7.5 cm
Depth: 1.6 cm
Room 56: Mesopotamia
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Record of food supplies
Probably from southern Iraq
Late Prehistoric period, about 3000 BC
An early administrative text
During the Late Prehistoric period administrators developed new ways of recording information. Representations of objects issued as rations, or stored for future use, were drawn on pieces of clay as memory aids. These pictographs, made by drawing a sharp stick or reed across the clay, gradually became more abstract. Increasingly, the end of the reed was simply pressed at an angle a number of times into the clay to form the design. The signs were thus made up of wedge-like lines, or cuneiform (the Latin for wedge is cuneus).
This clay tablet records the allocation of rations. The sign drawn in the lower middle of the tablet represents a human head with a triangular object in front. This triangular shape represents a mass-produced ration bowl big enough to contain one day's worth of food. This combination of pictographs expressed the idea of eating, and was later used to write the Sumerian word ku, 'to eat'. The circular impressions in the top right corner represent quantities.
C.B.F. Walker, Cuneiform (Reading the Past) (London, The British Museum Press, 1987)
H.J. Nissen, P. Damerow and R.K. Englund, Archaic bookkeeping (Chicago University Press, 1993)