Cuneiform tablet: administrative account of barley distribution with cylinder seal impression of a male figure, hunting dogs, and boars

Period: Jemdet Nasr

Date: ca. 3100–2900 B.C.

Geography: Mesopotamia, probably from Uruk (modern Warka)

Culture: Sumerian

Medium: Clay

Dimensions: 2.17 x 2.36 x 1.63 in. (5.5 x 6 x 4.15 cm)

Classification: Clay-Tablets-Inscribed-Seal Impressions

Credit Line: Purchase, Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gift, 1988

Accession Number: 1988.433.1


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)