The Old Babylonian School

The Sumerian term é-dub-ba-a (Akkadian bīt ṭuppi), "the house of the tablets" (or lit. in Sumerian, "the house where tablets are allotted"), stands for school, library and scriptorium at the same time.

Lately, there has been renewed interest in Mesopotamian scribal education, focusing on the Old Babylonian period (ca. 2000-1595 B.C.) because of its abundant evidence for scribal training.

Our most reliable knowledge is based on the archaeological discoveries in the Mesopotamian cities of Nippur, Ur, Isin, Sippar and Kish. Particularly in Nippur, excavations have unearthed thousands of school texts. These texts were found in private domestic buildings thought to be schools, which were sometimes located one next to the other in a "scribal neighborhood". The Old Babylonian education seems to be a small-scale one, run by private initiative from one generation to the next.

The function of the edubba was two-fold: to train the scribe in the skills of his profession, equipping him to record day-to-day affairs; and to maintain and hand down the huge Mesopotamian cultural heritage.

Modern scholars, while reconstructing the Old Babylonian scribal curriculum, have identified two clearly distinguished stages of education. In the earlier stage, students were introduced to the cuneiform writing system as well as metrology. This included Sumerian vocabulary, grammar, as well as sentence structure. Education moved from simple to complex and afforded many occasions to reinforce previously learned skills and knowledge through repetition. In the early stage of the curriculum, the teacher (Sumerian 'ummia') closely supervised the students, who would copy from a teacher's model, or write from dictation. In contrast, during the second stage, when advanced literary texts were copied, the students were more autonomous and did not have a master's model to copy. Not all the scribes continued onto the advanced curriculum. Whoever intended to specialize in a particular administrative field, such as legal affairs, palace or temple administration, etc., did not need to widen his knowledge of literary texts.

The curricular cursus of the Old Babylonian Sumerian education has been convincingly reconstructed based on Nippur evidence, at least as far as the early phase of instruction are concerned, by the following scholars:

Tinney, Steve 1998; Texts, Tablets and Teaching: Scribal Education in Nippur and Ur, Expedition 40: 40-50.

Tinney, Steve 1999; On the Curricular Setting of Sumerian Literature, Iraq 61: 159-172.

Vanstiphout, Herman L.J. 1978; Lipit-Eštar's Praise in the Edubba, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 30: 33-66.

Vanstiphout, Herman L.J. 1979; How Did They Learn Sumerian?, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 31: 118-126.

Veldhuis, Niek 1996; The Cuneiform Tablet as an Educational Tool, Dutch Studies on Near Eastern Languages and Literature 2: 11-26.

Veldhuis, Niek 1997; Elementary Education at Nippur. The Lists of Trees and Wooden Objects. Groningen.

Veldhuis, Niek 2004; Religion, Literature and Scholarship: the Sumerian Composition of Nanše and the Birds. Cuneiform Monographs 42. Leiden-Boston: Brill.

18 May 2014

Gabriella Spada

Gabriella Spada, 'The Old Babylonian School', Old Babylonian Model Contracts, The OBMC Project, 2014 []

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