Introduction to the Old Babylonian Model Contracts

The so-called "model contracts" were part of the first stage of the scribal curriculum in the Old Babylonian school. They were used to train the scribes in the formal patterns of the administration and the law. Although several hundreds of such exercises have survived, only a small number of them have been published to date.

For the time being, most of the known model contracts (both published and unpublished) come from Nippur. This city, which was a primary seat for the transmission of Sumerian culture, had a great reputation throughout ancient Mesopotamia.

Model contracts were not functional documents. They were simple didactic tools which follow common patterns for Sumerian contract types. These models represent a comprehensive assortment of all possible transactions that the ancient Mesopotamian administration might have been required to draw up in everyday economic life: barley and silver loans, deeds of real estate or slave sales, lease of fields, marriage contracts, adoptions, manumission of slaves, and so on.

In comparing model contracts with real administrative and legal contracts, one notes the absence of a list of witnesses and of a date, both essential for the legal validity of a document. In their place some model contracts include the notation "its witnesses, its month, its year (are omitted)".

Model contracts were often arranged in a conscious ordering, obviously for didactic purposes, on what are called compilation tablets (German Sammeltafeln). These collections occasionally consisted of groups where related model contracts differed from each other in the values for one (or more) of the contractual variables. The repetitive character of these texts is useful for explaining and drilling the Sumerian sentences and formulas.

Finally, these school exercises may present a colophon, with the name of the apprentice scribe, in Sumerian dub-sar-tur, and occasionally a date (including only the day and the month, not the year).

18 May 2014

Gabriella Spada

Gabriella Spada, 'Introduction to the Old Babylonian Model Contracts', Old Babylonian Model Contracts, The OBMC Project, 2014 []

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