The Joy of Museums

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Sumerian Cone or Clay Nail

Penn Museum - Joy of Museums - Ceramic Cones

This “Cone” with Cuneiform inscription was used by Sumerians and other Mesopotamian cultures beginning in the third millennium BC.  These Sumerian historical objects are also referred to as “clay nails” or “foundation pegs”. Sumer was the first urban civilization and is the site of the earliest known civilization, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in the area that is now southern Iraq.

These cone-shaped nails made of clay and inscribed with cuneiform, were inscribed, baked and then stuck into the mud-brick walls to serve as evidence that the temple or building was the divine property of the god to whom it was dedicated.

These cones were commissioned by King Lipit-Ishtar of Isin. The translation reads:

“I am Lipit-Ishtar, humble shepherd of Nippur, true farmer of Ur, the unceasing one of Eridu, the appropriate lord of Uruk, the king of Isin, the king of Sumer and Akkad, the one born in the heart by Inanna. When I had established justice in Sumer and Akkad, I built the “House of Justice” at the irrigation canal, the outstanding place of the gods.”

Cones with Cuneiform script inscriptions provide some of the oldest ‘documents’ in our history, documenting the sponsor, responsible for the construction and dedication of a construction. They also provide some of the oldest histories and historical intrigues were boasting led to historical inaccuracies and misstatements of facts.

The Cuneiform script, on the cones, is one of the oldest systems of writing, which was invented by the Sumerians. It is identified by its wedge-shaped marks on clay, made by a blunt reed as a stylus. The name cuneiform simply means “wedge shaped”.

Dinastico arcaico

A map with the key Sumerian cities along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers mentioned on the Cone: Ur, Eridu and Uruk

Emerging in cities of Sumer nearly 6,000 years ago, cuneiform writing began as a system of pictograms. The pictorial representations then became simplified and more abstract as the number of characters in use reduced.

Cuneiform writing was gradually replaced by the Phoenician alphabet during the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911–612 BC). About 2,000 years ago, the Cuneiform script had become extinct, as all knowledge of how to read it was lost, until it was deciphered in the 19th century.


This is the monogram of “JOY OF MUSEUMS” in cuneiform, courtesy of Penn Museum website.

Essential Facts:

  • Title:                Cult Statue Head of Diana
  • Culture:           Sumerian
  • Date:                 1720 BC
  • Provenience:  Iraq
  • Materials:       Clay
  • Dimensions:   H: 10.6cm; Outside Diameter: 5cm
  • Museum:        Penn Museum


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Photo Credit: By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons