Art History Lab

Cracking the Code: Uncovering the Mystery of Sumerian Clay Tablets

The Mysterious

Sumerian Clay Tablets and the Evolution of

Cuneiform Script

Have you ever heard of Sumerian clay tablets or cuneiform script? These ancient artifacts might seem like something out of a fantasy novel, but they are real and reveal a great deal about our history and the evolution of writing.

In this article, we will dive deeper into the world of Sumerian clay tablets and take a closer look at cuneiform script.

Sumerian Clay Tablets

The Sumerians were one of the most ancient civilizations in the world, and they were known for many things, including their intricate system of writing. Today, surviving evidence of this writing comes almost exclusively in the form of clay tablets, which are etched with cuneiform script.

These tablets have been found in abundance in ancient Sumerian cities like Nippur and Uruk. What makes these clay tablets so special?

Well, for one, they are incredibly old – some date as far back as 3100 BCE! The tablets contain a range of information, from business transactions to religious texts, legal codes, and more. Many of the tablets were used as a way to keep records of the day-to-day activities of the Sumerians, and some even contain personal letters.

Cuneiform Script

The writing system used on these tablets is called cuneiform, which was one of the earliest writing systems ever created. Cuneiform involves making wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets using a stylus made from reed.

These marks represent words, and sometimes even entire phrases or sentences. The earliest form of cuneiform was pictographic, meaning that the symbols used represented actual objects or ideas.

However, as the system of writing evolved, it became more abstract and began to represent sounds rather than objects. It eventually became a non-pictographic syllabic system, making cuneiform one of the most complex writing systems ever created.

Evolution of Cuneiform Writing

Cuneiform writing was created by various cultures in the ancient Middle East. It is still not entirely clear how and why the Sumerians first developed this system of writing.

What we do know is that over time, cuneiform script underwent significant changes. One of the biggest changes to cuneiform happened around 2600 BCE when Sumerian scribes began using triangular wedges instead of pictographs.

This alteration made the script more abstract and allowed for a greater number of unique marks to be made. Around 2250 BCE, Akkadians conquered Sumer and made their own contribution to cuneiform.

They introduced the use of phonetic sounds in their tablets, which allowed for a greater degree of accuracy in writing. This move toward a more phonetic script represented a major transition in the history of writing.

Correspondent Counting

In addition to creating a complex writing system, the Sumerians are also known for their use of mathematics. One of their most significant contributions to arithmetic is correspondent counting, a method where the Sumerians would count using symbols that represented different numbers.

For example, they would use a symbol representing one to count to ten, then use another symbol to represent ten. This allowed them to count up to 100, as each successive symbol represented an additional power of ten.

This method of counting was highly sophisticated for its time and allowed for complex mathematical operations to be performed.


Our journey into the world of Sumerian clay tablets and cuneiform script has been a fascinating one. These ancient artifacts reveal not only the daily lives of the Sumerians but also their incredible ingenuity and intellect.

We have seen how cuneiform evolved over time and how the Sumerians developed a complex mathematical system to aid their daily lives. By studying the past, we can gain a better understanding of our present and future.

The Mysterious

Sumerian Clay Tablets Revealed: Discoveries and Translations

In our previous discussion, we explored the world of Sumerian clay tablets and their complex systems of writing and mathematics. In this addition, we will take a look at the discoveries and translations of these ancient artifacts, as well as the fascinating mythological tales they reveal.

Discovery of Sumerian Tablets

The discovery of Sumerian clay tablets occurred mostly in the 19th and 20th centuries CE, primarily in the Middle East. Many of these tablets were unearthed during archaeological excavations and have since been found in vast numbers.

The most significant discovery of Sumerian clay tablets occurred in the 19th century at the site of Nippur in modern-day Iraq. The tablets here were primarily legal codes, contracts, and other forms of documentation.

Another significant discovery occurred at the site of Uruk in modern-day Iraq, where over 30,000 tablets were found. These tablets contain Sumerian literature, religious texts, and administrative records, offering us an in-depth understanding of Sumerian society.

Other discoveries of Sumerian tablets have been made at sites such as Ur, Lagash, and Eridu.

Locations of Sumerian Tablets

Sumerian clay tablets have been discovered not only in the areas where the Sumerians lived, but also in places where they traded and interacted with other cultures. For example, tablets have been found in Bahrain, the Indus Valley, and Egypt.

These discoveries have allowed historians to study the interactions between the Sumerians and their neighbors and have provided new insights into the history of the ancient world. The vast amount of tablets found in various locations indicates the scale of the Sumerian trading network and the level of their contribution to ancient civilization.

Translation of Sumerian Tablets

The translation of Sumerian clay tablets has been a crucial task for historians and archaeologists. The decipherment of cuneiform script was a lengthy process, complicated by the various changes in the script over time and the different types of texts.

The first successful translation of a Sumerian text occurred in the 19th century, and since then, thousands of tablets have been successfully translated. Through these translations, historians have gained insights into Sumerian society, including trade, religious beliefs, and historical events.

These translations have also revealed the complexity and beauty of Sumerian literature and mythology that had previously been lost to time.

Mythological Tales on Sumerian Tablets

Among the translations uncovered on Sumerian clay tablets are some of the world’s earliest mythological tales, which offer insights into the beliefs and values of the Sumerian people. Among these texts are the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation myth, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the world’s earliest recorded epics.

The mythological tales found on Sumerian tablets provide a glimpse into the ancient Sumerians’ worldview. Many of these tales reflect a polytheistic religion, an emphasis on the importance of agriculture, and a belief in the afterlife.

Myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh also reveal the human fascination with mortality and the search for immortality.


The discovery and translation of Sumerian clay tablets may have occurred over the past two centuries, but they continue to fascinate and enlighten us today. These tablets reveal the complexity and sophistication of a civilization that existed more than 5,000 years ago and greatly contributed to the development of human civilization.

The revelations from these ancient texts continue to shed light on humanity’s origins, beliefs and the staggering extent of our ancient past. The Mastery of Cuneiform Tablets: Accounting and Sumerian Culture

In our previous discussions, we have explored the discovery and translation of Sumerian clay tablets.

As we delve deeper into our study of these artifacts, let us delve into their practical uses such as accounting, as well as how they provide invaluable information about Sumerian culture.

Use of Cuneiform for Accounting

One of the unique features of Sumerian clay tablets is their use in accounting. These tablets were used by Sumerian merchants and administrators to record transactions such as trade agreements, loans, and debts.

Because of their remarkable durability, clay tablets were often preferred over other materials for record keeping purposes. The use of cuneiform script made it possible to keep accurate and detailed records of trade and commerce exchanges.

Because of its complexity, the system of writing was also able to record other economic and financial information, such as the amount of grain needed to feed a household, taxes paid, and salaries of workers. It is through these accounting records, one is able to understand the complexity of the Sumerian economy and the robust nature of the commercial exchanges that occurred.

Cuneiform Tablets as a Source of Knowledge about Sumerian Culture

Sumerian clay tablets offer unmatched insights into the daily lives and rich culture of the Sumerians. From legal codes to religious texts, these tablets address the essential aspects of Sumerian life.

Through these texts, we can have a window into the Sumerians’ social organization, gender roles, political system, and beliefs. One of the most significant kinds of tablets to this inquiry is the Amarna Tablets, discovered in the 19th century.

These tablets include correspondence between the Sumerians and the Egyptian pharaohs and reveal ideas on diplomacy, trade, and politics. The personal letters found within these tablets provide a glimpse into Sumerian interpersonal relationships, gossip, and news about significant events.

Furthermore, the tablets with literary texts give us insight into Sumerian mythology, art, and literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, is a cultural epic that is fundamental in shaping modern-day art and literature learned about in high school.

It is through these tablets that we can understand the Sumerians as a cultural and creative people.


Sumerian clay tablets are among the most significant artifacts ever discovered due to their rich history and myriad uses. From accounting records to personal letters and mythological epics, these tablets hold an inexhaustible amount of information on the daily lives of the Sumerians and can be of assistance in understanding our history.

With their discovery and translation, there is no doubt that the analysis of Sumerian clay tablets will continue to create new knowledge and insights into our past as humans. Sumerian clay tablets are an essential source of information for understanding the daily lives and culture of ancient Sumerians.

These tablets have been found in various locations, and their practical uses include accounting records, personal correspondence, and mythological epics, among others. Through the decipherment of cuneiform, scholars have gained insights into the complex writing system, mathematics, trade relationships, legal codes, religious beliefs, mythological tales, and more.

The study of Sumerian clay tablets provides invaluable information about our past as humans and our cultural evolution throughout history.

Popular Posts