May 31, 2006

How to Recognize a Scribal School

Part 1: Formal Scribal Training

Several weeks ago, I was talking with Loren Fisher about the possibility of there having been a scribal school in Jerusalem in the late Iron Age I or early Iron Age II periods. While we may differ as to exactly when it existed and how significant it was neither one of us doubt that there was such a scribal school in ancient Jerusalem. So far, no direct and unambiguous evidence has been found but both of us see various kinds of indirect and suggestive evidence. This conversation caused me to think about how one would recognize a scribal school if one saw one. I had originally planned a single post on this question but the project has taken on a life of its own. Like many such problems, this problem is much more than one of definition. The identification of a scribal school tends to be trivial and oblivious when looked at from one direction. But the identifying factors, if any, can be very complex and illusive when considered from another direction. This last point is particularly true in the case of Iron Age Jerusalem.

I will start with the trivial and certain in this post and then move to the more interesting but uncertain later on. Because some of our best evidence for what a scribal school in the West was like comes from the Late Bronze Age and there is very little unambiguous evidence from the Iron Age, I will use that Late Bronze Age evidence in order to lay a foundation the later discussion. At this time, I plan the following series of posts: 1) this post, on elementary formal scribal training in Akkadian in the late Bronze Age at Ugarit and Amarna with some references to Emar and other places. 2) Supplemental, specialized and advanced Akkadian scribal training, including the use of myth and literature primarily at Ugarit and Amarna. 3) Training in the alphabetic writing system from Ugarit and training in a second language in the Late Bronze Age. 4) Evidence for the training of scribes in Late Bronze Age Canaan. 5) Evidence for the training of scribes in the Iron Age. 6) Circumstantial criteria for identifying a scribal tradition. 7) "The Jerusalem Academy?" These topics are subject to change with little notice.

Some of these posts, including this one, will be long and somewhat tedious, so I will try to provide concise summaries at the conclusion of each. Those who want to avoid the details can head directly to the final paragraph(s) just before the reference section.

Whatever criteria is developed for identifying a scribal school that criteria must be able to distinguish between the presence of a scribe, a few working scribes or a literate subpopulation and a place where new scribes learn their craft and masters pass on their skills and traditions to students. van der Toorn, 100, notes that EA 30, a "passport" for a messenger headed for Egypt from Mitanni, implies that all or many of "the kings of Canaan" had someone who could read in their court or among their general population, a local scribe perhaps. This does not mean that the kings of Canaan all supported scribal schools.

Very little in this post or the whole series as it unfolds is original to me. For this post, I have relied heavily on the works of W. H. van Soldt and Yoram Cohen as well as Shlomo Izre'el and several volumes of Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon (MSL). A few other sources will be noted along the way. Please consult the references below. I could have also consider material from elsewhere but I thought the tablets from Ugarit and Amarna would be sufficient when supplemented at key points with material from Emar and Boğazköy (Hattusha). Amarna is of particular interest because many of the school tablets appear to be purposely broken or partially rubbed out. This and other evidence may well indicate that we are dealing with the disposable exercises of the students rather than the "textbooks" of the teachers. In many cases, it is not always so clear which we have at Ugarit or at Emar and Boğazköy for that manner.

There can be little doubt, based on the material discovered at Ugarit and Amarna, that they had scribal schools and taught writing in the Akkadian language and syllabary. In the case of Ugarit (and Emar), we know the names of some of the likely teachers and students and that scribal training went on in the masters extended residences. At least at Ugarit, some scribes were also trained in the royal palace. At Amarna, scribal training appears to have taken place in the "Records Office" (see Izre'el, 4-13).

I want to start by looking at the formal scribal curriculum as an indication of the types of texts that should be unequivocally associated with a scribal school. In general, the training in the West followed the same outline as in the great Mesopotamian centers of learning and used much of the same material. Comparable material from Mesopotamian comes from earlier than, contemporary with, and later than the period of focus of this post. In fact, at least one of the master scribes from Emar (see Cohen) was likely originally from Mesopotamia and there is reason, which I will discuss in a subsequent post, to believe the same was true at Amarna. Not surprisingly, the core curriculum consists of graduated, largely traditional, formal exercises. Novice scribes started with a simple exercise in which they wrote out the signs for the various syllables and then, as they mastered the easier material, moved on to more advanced copying and dictation, then to extended vocabulary lists, complex ideograms, compound words, and compound ideograms whose meaning could not be inferred from their constituent parts. Even more advanced writing exercises including making copies of religious and literary works were introduced. Eventually the student was taught how to compose letters, business records and other documents. But we will save much of these later phases for the next post.

[Note: In what follows, I cite only representative or practically instructive examples of the relevant texts from Ugarit. There are many of them. But I have tried to be more complete in the case of texts from Amarna. While I am confident that I captured all the Ugarit and Amarna material, I'm not so sure about the Emar material where I relied most heavily on Cohen. If you would like a list of all the relevant tablets from Ugarit, please leave a comment or send me an email and I'll send them to you.]

Following the general outline presented by van Soldt, 172-174, for Ugarit and supplemented by Cohen, 94, and working in some of the Emar material and the extant Amarna material, I would suggest that a possible formal curriculum in Akkadian in the Late Bronze Age Levant would have consisted of the student scribe mastering the following texts in more or less this order:

Tu-ta-ti: The instructor would start his pupil with this simple list of syllables that the student would copy perhaps from dictation. Seven such texts are known from Ugarit. RS 20.125+ and RS 20.155 are both representative and otherwise instructive. RS 20.125+ and RS 20.155 provide evidence for the next item in the curriculum. After Tu-ta-ti these tablets continue with the Silbenalphabet A. Tu-ta-ti is represented by EA 350 at Amarna. This very fragmentary tablet also appears to have part of Silbenalphabet A on the reverse and therefore, like RS 20.125+ and RS 20.155, it supports the conclusion that Tu-ta-ti was followed by Silbenalphabet A.

Silbenalphabet A: This and likely Silbenvocabulary A would follow the mastery of the Tu-ta-ti. Silbenalphabet A is a list of ideograms. Silbenalphabet A is represented by RS 5.222bis, RS 20.125+134 and seven other tablets from Ugarit. Silbenvocabulary A is a list of ideograms each with it's Akkadian equivalent. It is represented by RS 17.41+29.103 and four other tablets from Ugarit. Presumably, Silbenalphabet A and Silbenvocabulary A were taught together at Ugarit. Emar 603 is an example of a Silbenvocabulary A text. As noted in the survey of Tu-ta-ti tablets, the reverse of the very fragmentary EA 350 from Amarna contains traces of Silbenalphabet A.

Sa Syllabary and Sa Vocabulary: After the student mastered the Silbenalphabet and Silbenvocabulary A he took up the Sa Syllabary and, at least at Ugarit, and Emar, the Sa Vocabulary. Sa Syllabary is a list of more or less simple signs. RS 20.177+, and eight other tablets at Ugarit contain parts of the Sa Syllabary. It is noteworthy that RS 14.128+ and RS 14.128+ are written in a more archaic version of cuneiform than the other Sa Syllabary texts used at Ugarit. This same older writing system can be seen in Emar 538, a Sa Syllabary tablet from Emar. EA 347, EA 379 and possibly EA 349 from Amarna are from the Sa Syllabary tradition and written in the local dictum. These fragments may be part of the same original tablet. But Izre'el, 92-93, argues against this possibility. The multilingual Sa Vocabulary, similar to Silbenvocabulary A, has at least a column with the Akkadian equivalent to the Sa Syllabary. At Ugarit and environs the Sa Vocabulary is represented by RS 20.189A+B, RIN 77/5 and RS 20.426F (which has only a Hurrian column) and six other tablets. With the exception of RS 21.62 and RS 23.493A that are trilingual, all the others contain, or show signs of once containing, four columns: a Hurrain and Ugaritic column in addition to an idiogram column and an Akkadian column. Emar 537 is an Sa Vocabulary tablet. Amarna has yielded no example of a tablet in the Sa Vocabulary series, but EA 347 is very likely a lexical text and EA 368 is also a lexical text with an Egyptian column and an Akkadian column. I'll have more to say about this text and the quadralingual vocabulary texts from Ugarit in a later post. On the Sa Syllabary and Sa Vocabulary in general see MSL volumes 2 and 3.

It is not clear what series followed the Sa series in the standard curriculum. The next several items were certainly included in some of the training but the order in which I present them should be considered arbitrary and their exact place in curriculum uncertain.

An List: Because a quadrilingual version of the An list is at the end of the quadrilingual Sa Vocabulary at Ugarit (RS 20.123+), we can be reasonably certain that An, sometimes called the Weidner God list, came after the quadrilingual Sa Vocabulary in the curriculum at Ugarit whenever the quadrilingual Sa Vocabulary was used but otherwise it is not so clear when or how An was used. An is represented at Ugarit by sixteen syllabic tablets. Among the least fragmentary are RS 5.302+ and RS 22.344+. And as mentioned above, RS 20.123+ contains the first part of this list. I will discuss the alphabetic god lists in a later post. EA 374 is certainly a list of gods from Amarna. Less certain is how it relates to the An list. See Izre'el, 386, for a discussion of this issue. Whatever its relationship to An, it is without doubt a scribal exercise from Amarna.

Paradigms and grammatical texts: Some sixteen grammatical tablets, all related, are known from Ugarit. All are Sumerian/Akkadian bilingual. Among these the most complete is RS 22.227A. Another interesting example is RS 20.148+ (KTU 5.16), which in addition to having an Akkadian grammatical excerpt of the more complete text that is repeated three times, has four partial and/or complete copies of the canonical Ugaritic cuneiform alphabet. I'll have more on this tablet when we take up scribal training in Ugaritic in a later post. On this type of text in general and RS 20.148+ in particular, see MSL SS1, 75-89. There are no unambiguous examples from Amarna. But a prism fragment from Boğazköy, KBo 26 4, contains what appears to be a Sumerian paradigm (MSL SS1, 90). It is not clear how this text from Boğazköy is related to the other grammatical texts. It is also not clear how and where these texts were used in any curriculum. That such a large number of them are known from Ugarit would lead one to believe that they were of some importance. Because of the repeated excerpts and the repeated alphabets, I believe that RS 20.148+ (KTU 5.16) must have been a student's practice tablet.

Ea: This is a family of lists that gives the simple signs of the cuneiform writing system with their pronunciation and Akkadian meanings. In this regard, it is somewhat like Sa Vocabulary. According to van Soldt, 173, there is only one Ea text (RS 25.459+6.150) known from Ugarit. How or even if it was used in scribal training at Ugarit is unclear. In Mesopotamia, Ea was used after the Sa Syllabary. Ea is unknown at Amarna and may have been part of an "extracurricular" library in the Lamašu archive at Ugarit. On Ea in general, see MSL volume 14.

"Table of Measures": Six examples, including RS 20.14, are known from Ugarit. These tablets are what amount to conversion tables for grain, weights and surface measurements. Again, it is not clear how these tablets were used. The fact that several of them were found in three separate archives, which contained other instructional material, would make one think that they had some part of the standard curriculum at Ugarit. EA 368, the Egyptian/Akkadian bilingual tablet, has a somewhat similar flavor in lines 6 thought 15, but it clearly was intended for quite another purpose. As I have said, I will take it up when I write on learning to write a second language.

As van Soldt, 173, says, "We are on much more solid ground with the big series Harra hubullu (Hh), Lu, Izi and Diri." By this, he means that we have a much better understanding of the place in the curriculum of these series than we do of the An List, the grammatical texts, Ea and "Table of Measures."

Harra=hubullu: The canonical version of Harra=hubullu is an extensive list of vocabulary items. Everything from legal and administrative words to the names of animals is included. There are over 200 (!)Harra=hubullu tablets known from Ugarit. All of the 24 canonical tablets are represented in 15 tablet groups. Many of these tablets are extracts from canonical Harra=hubullu. Emar tablets 541-561 are from this same series. Six of the 24 canonical Harra=hubullu tablets are represented in two separate Emar scholarly archives. Both unilingual and bilingual tablets are known from Ugarit and Emar. One bilingual version from Ugarit [RS2.(23)+] is Sumerian/Hurrian rather than the more common Sumerian/Akkadian. There are no known examples of Harra=hubullu from Amarna but it is hard to believe that it was not part of the curriculum there. On this series in general and its canonical version, see MSL volumes 5. 6, 7, 9, 10 and 11.

Lú and Lú=ša: The Lú and Lú=ša series is long list of professions and other vocabulary items and was fairly clearly used after Harra=hubullu. This is shown by RS 23.80, which contains the last part of canonical Harra=hubullu is followed by the beginning of the Lú=ša series. The Lú=ša series is seen in Emar 602. It is not known from Amarna. But, again, it is almost incomprehensible to think that it was not part of the curriculum there. On series Lú, series Lú=ša and various recessions see MSL volume 12. In the next post, I will discuss at least one idea concerning an absence of key curricular tablets from Amarna and elsewhere.

Izi: In Mesopotamia Izi follows Lú=ša in the standard curriculum. While direct evidence is lacking, it is reasonable to assume that the same order was maintained at Ugarit. Izi is list of compound words of increasing complexity (acrographic). At Ugarit a bilingual version was usually copied (RS 20134 and ten other tablets) but two unilingual tables are also known (RS 22.394+ and RS 2 [23]). Both of the two canonical tablets are represented at Ugarit, again usually in extracts, as well as in the "Izi Appendix." Izi tablets have not been found at Amarna.

Diri: This series of three canonical tablets is by far the most difficult and therefore stands at the end of this phase of the curriculum. As Frayne says, the Diri series is similar to Sa Syllabary except "it is limited to compound logograms whose reading cannot be inferred from their individual components; it also includes marginal cases such as reduplications, presence or absence of determinatives, and the like." Diri is represented by nine tablets at Ugarit with Diri 1 on five of them. RS 20.122, RS 17.154 and RS 22.277 are excerpts from Dire 1, 2 and 3 respectively. The certainty that Diri comes after Izi is documented by a catch line at the end of the Izi 2 tablet, RS 2(13), from Ugarit. At first appearances, Diri tablet 2 is well represented at Amarna (EA 351, 352+353 [the largest of the three], 354 and 373). However, these four may be large fragments of an even larger single tablet. See Izre'el, 34-35. On the Diri series in general see MSL volume 14.

Nigga, Erimhuš and other school texts: One copy of the Nigga series (RS 20.221) and one copy each of the Erimhuš tablets 1 and 2 (RS 26.139A and RS 25.425) are also known from Ugarit but it is unknown how they were used in the curriculum. Some 15 additional Akkadian lists from Ugarit are reasonably thought to have had some part in scribal training. Three of these (RS 15. 54, RS 20.07, RS 28.52) are lists of increasingly complex personal names. Perhaps these should be associated pedagogically with the lists of personal names in alphabetic cuneiform such as the names beginning with "y" (KTU 5.1) and a few others.

Having mastered these lists the aspiring scribe was ready for advanced training. I will take up that advanced training in the next post on this subject where things will get more interesting, less certain and more complex.

Short Summary and Conclusion

What can we learn from all the foregoing? If one finds a variety of formal training tablets (Tu-ta-ti, Silbenalphabet A, Sa Syllabary, Harra=hubullu, Lú=ša, Izi, Diri, etc.) at one location one can be very certain that there was a scribal school there. These tablets are the core curriculum for learning to read and write Akkadian. Even finding one is a pretty good sign of a scribal school. This is not much of a conclusion for all I've put you through but this little exercise and the next one should set the table for the real dinner that I hope will follow.

[Special notice: If you are anxiously waiting for my next installment on the short cuneiform alphabet, I plan to get back to those abnormal things soon. I am just taking a little vacation.]

Update: June 26, 2006
Added link to second installment in this series.

Update: July 30, 2006
Added link to third installment in this series.

Update: September 20, 2006
Revised series contents list to reflect dividing of the original post 4 into two posts and adding link to new post 4, "Evidence for the training of scribes in Late Bronze Age Canaan."


Civil, Miguel, Series DIRI = (w)atru, Materials for the Sumerian lexico, 15, Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 2004 (MSL)

Civil, Miguel, W. Green, and W. G. Lambert, Ea A=naqu, Aa A = naqu, with Their Forerunners and Related Texts, Materials for the Sumerian Lexicon,14, Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1979 (MSL)

Civil, Miguel, and D. A. Kennedy, "Middle Babylonian Grammatical Texts," Materials for the Sumerian lexicon. Supplementary series, 1( MSL SS1), Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1986

Frayne, Douglas R., "Scribal Education in Ancient Babylonia" as read at on May 23, 2006.

Izra'el, S., The Amarna Scholarly Tablets, Groningen: Styx, 1997

Lansberger, Benno, Das Syllabary A; Das Vocabulary Sa: Das Vocabular Sb, Materials for the Sumerian lexicon, 2 and 3, Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1955 (MSL)

Lansberger, Benno, The Series HAR-ra="hubullu", Materials for the Sumerian lexicon, 5. 6, 7, 9, 10 and11, Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1957-

Reiner, Erica and Miguel Civil, "The Series lu-sa, A Reconstruction of Sumerian and Akkadian Lexical Lists," Materials for the Sumerian lexicon, 12, Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1969 (MSL)

Soldt, W. H. van, "Babylonian Lexical, Religious and Literary Texts, and Scribal Education at Ugarit and its Implications for the Alphabetic Literary Texts," Ugarit: ein ostmediterranes Kulturzentrum in Alten Orient: Ergebnisse und Perspektiven der Forshung, Dietrich and Loretz eds., Abhandlungen zur Literatur Alt-Syrien-Palästinas, Bd. 7, Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995, 171-212

Torn K, van der, "Cuneiform Documents from Syria-Palestive: Texts, Scribes, and Schools," Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins, 116, 2000, 97-113

Posted by Duane Smith at May 31, 2006 1:37 PM | Read more on Scribal Schools |

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