Scribes in ancient Mesopotamia

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by Trustees of the British Museum
published on 03 August 2011

Literacy was not widespread in Mesopotamia. Scribes, nearly always men, had to undergo training, and having successfully completed a curriculum became entitled to call themselves dubsar, which means 'scribe'. They became members of a privileged élite who, like scribes in ancient Egypt, might look with contempt upon their fellow citizens.

Understanding of life in Babylonian schools is based on a group of Sumerian texts of the Old Babylonian period. These texts became part of the curriculum and were still being copied a thousand years later. Schooling began at an early age in the é-dubba, the 'tablet house'. Although the house had a headmaster, his assistant and a clerk, much of the initial instruction and discipline seems to have been in the hands of an elder student; the scholar's 'big brother'. All these had to be flattered or bribed with gifts from time to time to avoid a beating.

Apart from mathematics, the Babylonian scribal education concentrated on learning to write Sumerian and Akkadian using cuneiform and on learning the conventions for writing letters, contracts and accounts. Scribes were under the patronage of the Sumerian goddess Nisaba. In later times her place was taken by the god Nabu whose symbol was the stylus (a cut reed used to make signs in damp clay).



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