Education for Scribes

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Education for Scribes


Origins of Writing. Beginning around the eighth millennium b.c.e., Mesopotamians used small clay tokens to represent units or aggregate units of various entities such as animals or jars of grain. Around the middle of the fourth millennium b.c.e., more-complex methods were developed to keep track of the ever-increasing numbers of sheep and cattle and the vast quantities of grain and other commodities entering and leaving temple-owned farms and warehouses. The most significant of these developments, appearing about 3200 b.c.e., was proto-cuneiform, the world’s first writing system. Mesopotamians wrote on clay tablets with a stylus made from a reed that was trimmed to form a round, pointed, or sloping end. These writing materials were readily available in the river valleys of southern Mesopotamia. At first, signs were incised into the surface of the clay, but soon they were created by impressing the stylus into the surface, leaving the characteristic wedge-shaped marks called cuneiform (from the Latin word cuneus, “wedge”). Proto-cuneiform writing included numerals and ideograms (pictographic and abstract signs) representing nouns, a few adjectives, and perhaps some verbs denoting administrative actions. No grammatical elements are indicated, and the signs can, in theory, be read in any language. In fact, although it is generally accepted that the scribes spoke Sumerian, these early tablets cannot be used to prove this assumption.

Earliest Scribal Training. Most tablets from the Late Uruk period, from about 3200 b.c.e. on, are administrative accounts or economic records. Some, however, are lists of words denoting officials, commodities, and animals. The earliest evidence for a formal system of education, these lexical lists were used to train young scribes, who had to learn to copy them accurately. Lexical lists continued to be the basis of scribal education until the end of the cuneiform tradition in the early centuries of the Common Era.

Early Dynastic Developments. During the Early Dynastic period (circa 2900 - circa 2340 b.c.e.), cuneiform writing evolved to become sufficiently flexible that scribes could begin to record spoken language, principally Sumerian. Before the end of the third millennium b.c.e., they could also use cuneiform to record Akkadian, Eblaite, and Hurrian. With this newfound freedom of expression, scribes began to compose poetic texts glorifying the gods, heroes, and rulers. Few of these early texts survived the radical reforms introduced by Shulgi (circa 2094 - circa 2047 b.c.e.), the second king of the Third Dynasty of Ur. New texts lauding his dynasty and other new compositions were used in schools that trained loyal bureaucrats.

The Eduba.. During the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.), the school was called the “tablet house” (Sumerian: eduba). Its day-to-day operation is well documented by the many surviving student/teacher exercises, lexical lists, essays on school life, and examinations. Students studied with the “expert” or “father of the tablet house.” A dean, called “supervisor of the tablet house,” enforced the rules and regulations. Teaching assistants were called “older brothers.” Their jobs were to write new tablets for the students to copy, to check the students’ work, and to listen to memorized lessons. Other members of the faculty included “the man in charge of Sumerian” and “the man in charge of drawing.” Mathematics was taught by the “scribe of accounting,” the “scribe of measurement,” and the “scribe of the field.” Finally, there were men in charge of attendance and discipline, including a “man in charge of the whip.” Students were punished for poor class work and penmanship, sloppiness of dress, speaking without permission, not speaking Sumerian with the Sumerian instructor, and a variety of other offenses. When the student finished school, he became a scribe (literally, a “tablet writer”). As an institution, the eduba does not appear to have survived the end of the Old Babylonian period. In succeeding periods education seems to have become a private matter, carried out in the home of a master teacher.

Curriculum. Central to the instructional curriculum at the eduba was the study of two languages: Akkadian, the scribes’ native tongue, and Sumerian, which had become extinct as a spoken tongue before the end of the third millennium b.c.e. but remained the traditional language of learning. Teaching methods included memorization, dictation, writing new lessons, reviewing old ones, reading aloud from a written document, and spelling. Students learned signs and vocabulary through syllabaries (lists of syllabic signs) and lexical lists. Some tablets have the teacher’s copy on one side and the student’s work on the other. Other tablets range from beginners’ copies to those of the advanced student, whose work looks like the teacher’s. The lexical lists included botanical, zoological, geographical, and mineralogical terminology; they also provided important tools for the study of grammar, bilingual and trilingual dictionaries, and legal and administrative terms. After developing a command of the basics, a student learned to take dictation and to write prose and poetry. In mathematics instruction, students learned about multiplication, reciprocals, coefficients, balancing of accounts, administrative accounting, and how to make all kinds of pay allotments. They also studied surveying, including how to divide property and delimit shares of fields. Finally, the well-rounded student learned to sing and play musical instruments. Not every scribe completed the full curriculum.


Sumerian riddles and proverbs were copied by students studying in the eduba to become scribes. This riddle was found at Ur on a school tablet written circa 1750 b.c.e.

(What is) a house with a foundation like heaven,
A house which like a … vessel has been covered with linen,
A house which like a goose stands on a (firm) base,
One with eyes not opened has entered it,
One with open eyes has come out of it?
Its solution: the school.

Source: Å. W. Sjöberg, “The Old Babylonian Eduba,” in Sumerological Studies in Honor of Thorkild Jacohsen on his Seventieth Birthday June 7, 1974, edited by Stephen J. Lieberman, Assyriological Studies, no. 20 (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 159–179.

Students. Literacy was highly regarded, but most Mesopotamians could not read or write. The kings Shulgi (circa 2094 - circa 2047 b.c.e.) and Ashurbanipal (668-circa 627 b.c.e.) were possibly the only Mesopotamian rulers who were literate. Only wealthy families could afford to educate their sons. Administrative documents from about 2000 b.c.e. list about five hundred scribes, as well as the names and occupations of their fathers. Their fathers were members of what today might be termed the “upper middle class”: governors, ambassadors, temple administrators, military officers, sea captains, important tax officials, priests, managers, accountants, and scribes. Other surviving documents mention poor orphan boys adopted by generous patrons and sent to school. There is only one reference to a female scribe studying in the eduba. However, there were female scribes among cloistered priestesses at Sippar, and at Mari women scribes, probably slaves of the harem, were occasionally part of a princess’s dowry. Some celibate priestesses may have devoted themselves to scholarship.

School Days. Boys began their studies at the eduba between the ages of five and seven years and continued until they became young men. The school day lasted from sunrise to sunset. There is no information about vacations. One pupil described his monthly schedule:

My days of freedom are three per month,

Its festivals are three days per month.

Within it, twenty-four days per month

(Is the time of) my living in the tablet house. They are long days. (Saggs)

Examinations. Examinations were administered before an assembly of masters by a scribe in the courtyard of the tablet house. Students were tested on a vast body of knowledge. A school essay called “A Failed Examination” lists questions on correct sign forms; secret meanings of Sumerian words (cryptography); translation from Sumerian to Akkadian and Akkadian to Sumerian; three Sumerian synonyms for each Akkadian word; Sumerian grammatical terminology; conjugation of Sumerian verbs; various types of calligraphy and technical writing; and writing Sumerian phonetically. Examinees were also expected to understand the technical language of priests and other professions, such as silversmiths, jewelers, herdsmen, and scribes. They had to know how to make an envelope and seal a document. They were also tested on mathematics, division of fields, and allotting rations, as well as their ability to play various musical instruments, sing all kinds of songs, and conduct a choir. “A Failed Examination” begins with the teacher speaking kindly to his student, addressing him as “my son,” and with the student bragging about his knowledge:

Come, my son, sit at my feet. I will talk to you, and you will give me information! From your childhood to your adult age you have been staying in the tablet-house. Do you know the scribal art that you have learned?

What would I not know? Ask me, and I will give you the answer. (Landsberger)

A series of questions follows, beginning with easy ones and continuing with more-difficult ones. The student failed his exam and blamed his teacher.

Careers for Scribes. Students who passed their examinations found jobs in the service of palaces, temples, private estates, and other institutions. They worked in positions such as royal scribe, district scribe, military scribe, land registrar, scribe for laborer groups, administrator, public secretary to a high administrative official, accountant, copyist, inscriber of stone and seals, ordinary clerk, astrologer, mathematician, or professor of Sumerian.


Samuel Noah Kramer, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1963).

Benno Landsberger, “Scribal Concepts of Education,” in City Invincible: A Symposium on Urbanization and Cultural Development in the Ancient Near East Held at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, December 4–7, 1958, edited by Carl H. Kraeling and Robert M. Adams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 94–123.

Piotr Michalowski, “The Earliest Scholastic Tradition,” in Art of the First Cities: The Third Millennium B. C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus, edited by Joan Aruz with Ronald Wallenfels (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2003), pp. 451–456.

Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat, Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, Daily Life through History (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998).

Hans J. Nissen, Peter Damerow, and Robert K. Englund, Archaic Bookkeeping: Earliest Writing Techniques of Economic Administration in the Ancient Near East, translated by Peter Larsen (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Laurie E. Pearce, “The Scribes and Scholars of Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 4 volumes, edited by Jack M. Sasson (New York: Scribners, 1995), IV: 2265–2278.

Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964).

H. W. F. Saggs, Everyday Life in Babylonia & Assyria (London: Batsford / New York: Putnam, 1965).

Å. W. Sjöberg, “The Old Babylonian Eduba,” in Sumerological Studies in Honor of Thorkild Jacobsen on his Seventieth Birthday June 7, 1974, edited by Stephen J. Lieberman, Assyriological Studies, no. 20 (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1976), pp. 159–179.

C. B. F. Walker, Cuneiform (London: Published for the Trustees of the British Museum by British Museum Publications, 1987).

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Education for Scribes

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Education for Scribes