Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Cuneiform tablet: distribution of copper knives

Early Dynastic III
ca. 2600–2350 B.C.
Mesopotamia, Nippur
6.8 x 4.9 x 1.9 cm (2 5/8 x 1 7/8 x 3/4 in.)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1962
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 403
The invention of writing in approximately 3300 B.C. was one of many developments in administrative technology--including the use of geometric tokens for counting and cylinder seals to guarantee transactions--that accompanied the growth of the first cities and states in southern Mesopotamia. Proto-cuneiform is the name given to the earliest form of writing--pictograms that were drawn on clay tablets. Gradually, the pictograms became abstracted into cuneiform (Latin, "wedge-shaped") signs that were impressed rather than drawn. At its greatest extent, cuneiform writing was used from the Mediterranean coast of Syria to western Iran and from Hittite Anatolia to southern Mesopotamia. It was adapted to write at least fifteen different languages. The last dated cuneiform text has a date corresponding to A.D. 75, although the script probably continued in use over the next two centuries.

This tablet was excavated at the site of Nippur in Mesopotamia. The cuneiform text concerns the distribution of copper knives and records the various quantities issued to individuals. It was found in level VII B of the Inanna Temple along with objects such as statues, fragments of shell inlay, and vessels. The temple was excavated by a joint expedition of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago and the American Schools of Oriental Research. Inanna, whose name means "Queen of Heaven," was the goddess of fertility embodied in the planet Venus, which appears in the morning and again in the evening. Her temple at Nippur was named E-duranki, "the bond of heaven and earth." Excavations showed that this temple was in existence by the Early Dynastic I period and that sacred structures were rebuilt in the same sanctified location until the Parthian period nearly three thousand years later.
1960–61, excavated on behalf of the Joint Expedition to Nippur (Baghdad School of the American Schools of Oriental Research and The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago); acquired by the Museum in 1962, as a result of its financial contribution to the excavations.
Wilkinson, Charles K. 1962. "Near Eastern Art". The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 21 (2), Ninety-Second Annual Report of The Trustees for The Fiscal Year 1961-1962 (Oct., 1962), p. 84.

Spar, Ira. 1988. Cuneiform Texts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Volume I: Tablets, Cones, and Bricks of the Third and Second Millennia B.C. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, no. 1, p. 3, pl. 1.
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