Of the many legacies left by the ancient civilizations of southern Mesopotamia, the invention of writing is paramount. At the end of the fourth millennium B.C., written language developed in the region, first as pictographs and then evolving into abstract forms called cuneiform. The pictographs, like the ones on this tablet, are called proto-cuneiform and were drawn in the clay with a pointed implement. Circular impressions alongside the pictographs represented numerical symbols. Cuneiform (meaning wedge-shaped) script was written by pressing a reed pen or stylus with a wedge-shaped tip into a clay tablet. Clay, when dried to a somewhat hardened state, made a fine surface for writing, and when fired the records written on it became permanent.
Early writing was used primarily as a means of recording and storing economic information. This tablet most likely documents grain distributed by a large temple, although the absence of verbs in early texts makes them difficult to interpret with certainty. In addition to the writing that appears on this tablet, the imagery of the cylinder seal, which was incompletely impressed on both faces and the edges of the tablet before it was inscribed, also records information. This seal apparently has not survived. The seal impression depicts a male figure guiding two dogs on a leash and hunting or herding boars in a reed marsh. He is the so-called priest-king, a male figure who can be identified by his dress and pose. Here he appears in his role as the good shepherd who protects flocks from wild predators.
Adapted from, Art of the Ancient Near East: A Resource for Educators (2010)
Until 1988, Erlenmeyer collection, purchased by Professor Hans and Marie-Louise Erlenmeyer between 1943 and the early 1960s; acquired by the Museum in 1988, purchased at the sale of Ancient Near Eastern texts form the Erlenmeyer collection, Christie's, London, December 13, 1988, lot 21.
"Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus," The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 8–August 17, 2003.
Christie, Manson & Woods. 1988. Ancient Near Eastern texts from the Erlenmeyer collection. 13 December 1988, London, p. 16, p. 71, lot 21.
Annual Report of the Trustees of The Metropolitan Museum of Art 119 (July 1, 1988 - June 30, 1989), p. 16.
Pittman, Holly. 1989. "Three Tablets." The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 47 (2), Recent Acquisitions: A Selection 1988-1989 (Autumn 1989), pp. 6-7.
Aruz, Joan. 2003. "Administrative tablet with seal impression." In Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, exh. cat. edited by Joan Aruz, with Ronald Wallenfels. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, no. 11, pp. 40-41.
Benzel, Kim, Sarah B. Graff, Yelena Rakic, and Edith W. Watts. 2010. Art of the Ancient Near East: A Resource for Educators. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, image 4, pp. 58-59.
Spar, Ira, and Michael Jursa. 2014. Cuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Volume IV: The Ebabbar Temple Archive and Other Texts from the Fourth to the First Millennium B.C. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Eisenbrauns, no. 179, pp. 338-339, pl. 150, photos. 17-19.