Ancient tablets with a price tag

Mesopotamian inscriptions on clay dating back thousands of years are proving popular at auction.
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Nearly 4,000 years ago, in what is now Iraq, King Sin-iddinam dredged the Tigris and had his exploit recorded in cuneiform - "wedge- shaped" - script on a five-inch hollow clay cylinder.

It records that he paid each man a daily wage of "1 gur of barley, 2 sila of bread, 4 sila of beer, 2 shekels of oil. I let no man have either less or more". He was proud of what he had done: "By the command and decision of the great gods, I restored the Tigris, the broad river, and established my name for far-off, distant days".

His wish was granted. The clay cylinder, with his name clearly on it, sold for pounds 10,925 at Christie's in April this year. Less grandiose, cheaper cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, dating from 3000BC to the fourth century BC, crop up frequently at auction.

On Wednesday, Christie's antiquities sale is offering among other cuneiform clay tablets, at an estimated pounds 450-pounds 550 each, a legal document from Old Babylon of about the 18th century BC (three tablets) and a neo-Babylonian administrative text (eight tablets) of the early 6th century BC.

Translated by a retired academic, the administrative tablet brings to life across the centuries a part payment for a fiefdom, witnessed by five people, receipts for flour, and an agreement to pay 85 men for a day's work.

Cuneiform tablets were a little-known collectable until the big collection of Hans Erlenmeyer, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Basle, fetched pounds 933,000 at Christie's 10 years ago. Part of the fascination is that many scholars hold Mesopotamia to have been the cradle of civilization. Its people - squat, bearded and with bulbous noses, according to their own stone carvings - have been credited with inventing writing, cosmology, moral ideas, besides the concept that we now know as "the job".

Since the Erlenmeyer collection provoked such heavy bidding, prices have settled down, and you can now buy for under pounds 500 clay cuneiform tablets, about 5in by 4in in size, recording everyday "jobs" that were agreed back in the third millennium BC - the herding of goats and cattle into the temples, job-sheets allotting work harvesting, maintaining irrigation, chopping wood, tanning skins, and records of tools issued to craftsmen.

The cuneiform script, made by pressing the end of a reed into the clay, may look impossibly difficult to decipher, especially as it is written from right to left and has to be turned through 90 degrees before it is read. But it is founded on simple principles: each combination of little wedges represents a sound or word that evolved from a pictogram. There is no grammar. So you can learn to recognise the Sumerian or Akkadian languages' cuneiform symbols for an ox or barley.

The cuneiform script itself has evolved over the millennia. It is identified by the names given to archaeological levels excavated at Uruk, the Biblical Ur, the first city: Uruk IV and III, which span the dates 3300 to 2900 BC.

About 85 per cent of the transactions recorded at Ur are economic. An Ur III cuneiform tablet, estimated at pounds 600-pounds 800 in Christie's sale next week, has 33 lines of Sumerian text from the reign of King Shulgi, 2050BC, which records seed barley and oil for use as cultic offerings in the temple.

One of the commonest names that crops up in cuneiform is that of the Biblical King Nebuchadnezzar: he had it cast on every temple brick, a habit adopted by Saddam Hussein. One such clay brick, inscribed with seven lines of cuneiform, is in Bonhams' sale on Tuesday, estimated pounds 800-pounds 1,000.

The same sale also has a fine Old Babylonian cylinder seal (1900-1700BC) showing a bearded god wearing a deep-brimmed hat and robe, holding a cup, with a goddess at his side. It bears the name of its owner: "Sallum, scribe, son of Ea-hegal". Estimated price: pounds 6,500-pounds 7,000.

Beginners need to watch out for script added later in an attempt to enhance value. Bonhams have put "some re-cutting" in the catalogue note of an Akkadian shell cylinder seal with gods, moon and a star of 2300-2200BC. It is still estimated at pounds 1,600-pounds 1,800.

The London dealer Chris Martin sells clay tablets and cylinder seals for pounds 125-pounds 500 depending partly upon condition. His latest catalogue offers for pounds 450 a complete clay legal document in Sumerian of 2040 BC, 2ins long, relating to the purchase for three shekels of a female slave called Damqa. She lived four millennia ago but those little jabs of reed on clay have ensured that her name is not forgotten.

Antiquities, Christie's, Wednesday (10.30am) (0171-389 2111). Antiquities, Bonhams, Tuesday (11am) (0171-393 3945). Chris Martin (0181-882 1509/4359)