The ancient roots of bureaucracy
2 March 2011
Experts at the British Museum have translated the cuneiform text on RAMM’s 4,000 year old Mesopotamian tablets ready for display in the Ancient Worlds gallery.
RAMM has a small collection of ancient Mesopotamian objects. It includes cylinder seals – small circular stones covered with images and writing which were used to seal official documents – and clay tablets, clay bricks and monumental inscriptions. While research into the cylinder seals was published in the 1990s, the cuneiform text on the tablets and bricks has never been fully researched.
Cuneiform is the oldest writing system in the world, and, not surprisingly, only a few people can read it. The translations by the British Museum experts have provided a fascinating and extraordinarily accurate picture of their origins and uses.
Most of the tablets, small rectangular blocks of clay with writing incised on them, come from the ancient city of Umma. They record the issue of standardised rations of oil, beer, spicy seed and fish to messengers on official business. Another text records the issue of flour to various people and yet another has been dated very precisely to the year 2034 BC. It records the sacrifice of lambs and oxen by Akalla, the city ruler, and is sealed by Ninmarki, the official cupbearer.
It seems, as with most cuneiform records, RAMM’s tablets were created as official records of civic administration – how many of today’s bureaucratic records will still exist in 4,000 years time?
Image: Clay envelope with cuneiform text