A “Tasteless Tablet” And The Beginning of Scribal Training

When did students start scribal training in Mesopotamia? This is one of those perennial questions. Ann Guinan and Erle Leichty published a report and discussion of Niek Veldhuis’ discovery of a “tasteless” Old Babylonian tablet that seems to shed some light on this question. The tablet is a fragment of the lexical text Proto Ea. Veldhuis, 54-55, has argued that students studied Proto Ea during the first phase of training, near the end of the first year of study. What is abnormally interesting about this Proto Ea tablet is that it appears that someone bit off part of the tablet and left tooth marks. Guinan and Leichty published pictures that show two sets of tooth marks. Shortly after Veldhuis’ discovery of this tablet, Leichty took it to his dentist where both the dental assistant and the dentist separately identified the tooth marks as those of a 12 to 13 year old. Assuming that Veldhuis’ understanding of the scribal curriculum is correct and that it was a student who bit off part of his own work, then as Guinan and Leichty, 50, say, “The beginning of school would have coincided with the reaching of sexual maturity, when male children left the women’s quarters and took up residence with the men.” Whether this was true everywhere and at all times is another question.
Not so abnormally, Veldhuis discovered this tablet in a museum.

Guinan, Ann and Erle Leichty, “Tasteless Tablets,” in Gazing on the Deep: Ancient Near Eastern and Other Studies in Honor of Tzvi Abusch (Ed. Jeffery Stackert, Barbara Nevling, David P. Wright; Bethesda Maryland: CDL, 2010), 49-50
Veldhuis, Nicolaas Christiaan, Elementary Education at Nippur: The Lists of Trees and Wooden Objects, PhD dissertation, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 1997