Scribal apprenticeship

In first-millennium Assyria and Babylonia, fewer and fewer people learned how to write cuneiform script, or studied the cultural and scholarly compositions written in Sumerian and Akkadian. For everyday purposes, alphabetic Aramaic or, later Hebrew, Persian or Greek, were more practical literacies to acquire.

However, cuneiform retained a certain cachet, in part because it was already so old and in part because—at its fullest extent—it was so complex. To write letters, legal documents and administrative records required a repertoire of around 80-120 signs: already 4 or 5 times the number of a typical ancient alphabet. To master the many hundreds of syllables, logograms, punctuation marks, number signs, and word determinatives used in cuneiform scholarship involved many hours, months and years of dedicated study. However, the pay-off was membership of an elite group of men—rarely women in the first millennium—who earned their high social status through the ability to communicate effectively with both humans and gods.

This knowledge was not publicly available. An aspiring cuneiformist had to apprentice himself to one or more masters, whether formally or imformally. Often the teacher was the student's father or uncle, as for instance in the Šangi-Ninurta PGP  and Ekur-zakir PGP  families of the āšipus' house in late first-millennium Uruk. In other circumstances, such as at seventh-century Huzirina, students travelled long distances to work with a teacher that was not related to them.

Although every teacher had their own methods, and every student their own strengths and weaknesses, a core cluster of pedagogical texts was used across Assyria and Babylonia, in more or less standardised ways. Absolute beginners worked their way through a series of seven long lists of simple sign elements, syllables and words, to be learned by heart. In the second phase they wrote out extracts from the same exercises together with short snippets from a much wider range of classic works, spelling drills and ad hoc compositions. More specialised training began after that, focusing on the works of particular scholarly disciplines.

These pages describe some of the core genres and compositions of first-millennium scribal apprenticeship, as attested in the four CAMS/GKAB libraries. For more complete, authoritative and systematic accounts, see the items in the bibliography below.

Further Reading

Eleanor Robson

Eleanor Robson, 'Scribal apprenticeship', The Geography of Knowledge, The GKAB Project, 2019 []

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