Numbers and Metrology in Oracc Corpora

This document describes how to transliterate weights and measures in ATF for Oracc corpora.


Almost all modern writing systems use just ten graphemes — the digits 0–9 — to write numbers with, whether we are counting individual objects, measuring lengths, calculating volumes, or weighing things. However, there are many different notations for numbers in cuneiform, depending on what is being counted, measured, weighed or calculated. If that weren't complicated enough, several of those separate notation systems use the same graphemes with different, context-dependent meanings.

For instance, the U sign 𒌋 has the value 10 when counting individual objects, but is also an area measure (BUR₃) which is 3 (not 10) times larger than the EŠE₃ unit.

This example raises a further complicating factor: the fact that in many cuneiform metrological systems, especially those created in the late fourth and early third millennia, the numbers and units are not written separately but as count-unit graphemes. Thus in the classic Ur III-OB area system the U sign 𒌋 means "1 BUR₃" and three U signs 𒌍 means "3 BUR₃". (We always transliterate these count-unit signs with the unit in parentheses immediately after the number, like this: 1(BUR₃) and 3(BUR₃).)

For all these reasons, it is essential to be as explicit and as consistent as possible when transliterating, lemmatising, and translating numbers, weights and measures. This document sets out good practice for Oracc projects. It builds on earlier numbers and metrology documentation for CDLI corpora.

General principles


The basic principle of transliterating numbers and units — as with all transliteration — is that the transliteration must unambiguously represent the signs on the tablet. A cuneiformist reading your transliteration must be able to tell immediately which wedges the scribe put on the clay, and the ATF processor must be able to parse your text without ambiguity. For instance, a transliteration such as 150 is invalid ATF, as there is no cuneiform sign "150". You must write either 3.20 if the number is in base 60 or 1 ME 50 if the scribe has used number-words as well as numerals.

There are further notes on specific metrological systems below.

Here is part of an Old Babylonian tabular account transliterated according to Oracc standards in an ODS spreadsheet [../layouts/]:

Part of OECT 15, 18, an Old Babylonian tabular account, in ODS-ATF

Note the differences between diš-less notations in the length system (where missing unit signs are supplied as necessary) and the count-unit graphemes of the volume system.


For general documentation on lemmatisation, see the Linguistic Annotation pages.

Here the same Old Babylonian tabular account has been lemmatised:

Part of OECT 15, 18, an Old Babylonian tabular account, in lemmatised ODS-ATF


For general documentation on translation, see the Translation pages.

The same Old Babylonian tabular account translated:

Part of OECT 15, 18, an Old Babylonian tabular account, in ODS-ATF translation

Metrology Tables

These tables give the signs, transliterations, lemmatisations, translations and approximate modern equivalents for the major metrological systems of second and first-millennia Babylonia:

Diš-less numbers

Classic Ur III-OB metrologies

Kassite and first-millennium metrologies

If you need further metrological units or systems to be documented, please email the Oracc Steering Committee osc at oracc dot org.

Notes on specific metrological systems

Ur III-OB systems

Post-OB systems

There were several parallel post-OB length-area systems in use, depending on the context of use. "Reed measure" was used for small areas such as houses, while two different "Seed measures" — arû and aslu (not to be confused with the ašlu unit)— were used for larger ones such as fields.

18 Dec 2019 osc at oracc dot org

Eleanor Robson

Eleanor Robson, 'Numbers and Metrology in Oracc Corpora', Oracc: The Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus, Oracc, 2019 []

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