H. J. Nissen, P. Damerow and R. K. Englund, Frühe Schrift und Techniken der Wirtschaftsverwaltung im alten Vorderen Orient: Informationsspeicherung und -verarbeitung vor 5000 Jahren, Berlin, 1990, pp. 16 and 73-75, no. 4.11.
H. J. Nissen, P. Damerow and R. K. Englund, Archaic Bookkeeping: Early Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East, Chicago, 1993, pp. 43-46, fig. 39, no. MSVO 3, 11.
This exceptional administrative tablet, bearing the proto-cuneiform pictographic script that was invented in Southern Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago - man's first recorded writing system - is the finest of its type ever to appear on the market, and to remain in private hands. It was the most important piece of an outstanding collection of cuneiform tablets and documents formed by the late Professor Hans and Marie-Louise Erlenmeyer in the 1950s, which was offered for sale at Christie's London in 1988. The highlight of their collection was a remarkable archive of pictographic texts, the only such group of its kind ever to appear for sale, and certainly the best preserved archive of such tablets to have survived from antiquity at all. It was from this script that cuneiform (from the Latin cuneus; wedge, nail) evolved, the pictographic signs becoming smaller, more compact, more abstract and written in horizontal lines rather than in squares or in vertical bands. The curves were replaced with straight lines, the signs no longer resembled the objects they represented and the evolution was completed by the mid 3rd millennium B.C. The clarity and beauty of the script on this tablet is evident and the pictographic nature of the signs also - jars of certain types of beer are visible, as are barley. (Beer played and important part in Sumerian society and its production was highly developed in ancient Mesopotamia. From cuneiform texts and cylinder seals we learn that it was considered an essential foodstuff often listed in rations allocations; consumed by men and women of all social classes, it was also the drink of kings and deities. There were many different varieties of beer, certain types reserved exclusively for temple ceremonies. It was generally sipped through reed or clay straws, the nobility using straws of silver or gold).
The first writing system in the world developed as a response to a bureaucratic need. The flourishing city-states of Southern Iraq during the Uruk period (circa 3500-3000 B.C.) and their enormous increase in population density necessitated complex organisational structures. The pictographic script, from which cuneiform directly evolved, was developed and employed principally to monitor the administration of local economies by means of a numerical system rather than to record language; it might be viewed as a complex form of shorthand, pared down to the minimum using no syntax and, consequently (unlike cuneiform), almost impossible for us to decipher.
From 1913 onwards, throughout the last century, the German Archaeological Institute conducted excavations at the ancient city of Uruk (present-day Warka), which yielded a quantity of pictographic documents. From 1928-1976 almost 5000 texts and fragments were unearthed, forming the material for a long-term research project dedicated to their decipherment. Most recently, Prof. H. Nissen of the Freie Universitat, Berlin, has headed the project to publish and study the entire corpus of Uruk tablets. When the Erlenmeyer archive came on to the market in 1988, it provided enormously valuable additional material to help in the decipherment project contributing to understanding on several levels: individual signs, mathematical systems, and details of administrative activities; naturally it drew the attention of major museums as well as collectors. Between them, the British Museum, the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum and, principally, the Berlin Museum secured all but ten of the 53 lots ensuring that, for the most part, the archive would remain in public collections.
Hans J. Nissen and his colleagues, Robert K. Englund and Peter Damerow, subsequently organised an exhibition in the Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin, in 1990 entitled Early Writing and Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East, reuniting the Erlenmeyer texts along with loans of other pictographic material, on the theme of Archaic Bookkeeping and to show the results of the decipherment project. (The Stansfeld Tablet was used for the official postcard of the exhibition, being the largest and best preserved of the whole group, as well as containing valuable source text). The publications resulting from the exhibition (see above) explained how, for example, using the latest philological research and new methods of computer analysis, Nissen's team had succeeded for the first time in deciphering much of the numerical information. The bewildering complexity of the mathematics used in these early records was being revealed with increasing certainty; for example, it was shown that different numerical systems were in use for different categories of material - five principal systems and, in addition, several derived systems. No one until then had suspected that in the archaic texts the arithmetic values of the numerical signs could change depending on the context involved: identical signs could occur in different systems and consequently inherit different numerical connotations. Another discovery was that the tablets were not only used for individual transactions but were often recording particular steps in highly complex running accounts, sometimes carried over a number of years. This one archive had yielded, more than any other corpus, the opportunity to study the basic techniques of archaic accounting and related institutional and individual activities, acknowledged the authors.
See Archaic Bookkeeping, op.cit., pp. 36-46: "... a number of the texts, including The Stansfeld Tablet, bear a particular sign combination, read KU and SIM, which together probably form the designation of a specific person, but which, on the other hand, may denote some sort of institution or economic unit ... this assumed individual will therefore be referred to as "Kushim" ... Kushim is mentioned in altogether 18 tablets [including this lot], providing enough data to acquire a good idea about his responsibilites. On several occasions, he is specified as SANGA. From later texts we know that the Sumerian offical SANGA was usually charged with the administration of a temple or a palace. We are probably dealing therefore with an administrative official, that is, with the SANGA Kushim (or possibly the SANGA of Kushim). Kushim was apparently entrusted with the administration of a storage facility containing the basic ingredients for the production of beer ... [This tablet] makes reference to allocations partly to different individuals and partly destined for use at various occasions during a period of several days, perhaps some sort of religious festival."
[This tablet and lot 44] from the Erlenmeyer sale refer at two different stages and times, to the same transaction of the same beer distribution to the same person, thus providing evidence of a running accounts system and the continuity of archaic bookkeeping; something that can usually barely be traced due to such fragmentary texts. The documents from the administration of the official Kushim provide a rare example of a direct accounting connection between different texts.
"Texts [such as this one] containing calculations of the cereal ingredients needed for certain products belong to the most complicated arithmetical texts of the archaic period. To date, only a very few texts have been found in which such calculations were systematically carried out for various cereal products, for types of beer and so on. One of the remarkable things about these texts is that they inform us directly about the ingredients of different cereal products. In fact, it was the study of such texts that provided the basic proofs for the decipherment of the cereal measures used in the present Archaic Bookkeeping publication. Their special value is also to be seen in the light they shed on the developmental stage of arithmetical techniques in the period immediately after the invention of writing."
See illustrations on pages 88-89.
We are grateful to H. J. Nissen, P. Damerow and R. K. Englund for permission to reproduce the line drawings and cataloguing from the above publication.