July 30, 2006

How to Recognize a Scribal School

Part 3: Training in the alphabetic writing system from Ugarit and training in a second language in the Late Bronze Age

In the first post of this somewhat drawn-out series, I took up the use of the formal school tablets from a couple of sites in the Late Bronze Age Near East. In the second post, I considered how various literary texts might have been used in training scribes to read and write Akkadian. In this post, I will take a step closer to the original goal of discovering the diagnostic features of a scribal school in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age Levant. The case in which writing in an alphabet was taught. I will also look at the teaching of multiple languages and multiple writing systems. While I make no promises, at this point, this multilingual teaching environment may be important when I begin to explore the possibility of there being a scribal school in Jerusalem. Remember that the "Hebrew Bible" is actually written in Hebrew and Aramaic. While the large Aramaic blocks in Ezra and Daniel are beyond doubt post exilic, one need only recall that there is at least one reference to Aramaic in a much earlier literary contexts (II Kings 18:26) as well as a number of Aramaic glosses and words from likely pre-exilic passages. In addition, various Egyptian and Akkadian loanwords have been identified that may, again I say "may," reflect a multilingual scribal tradition in Hebrew at some point or other as does the presence of very strong echoes (translation?) of the Egyptian "Instructions of Amenemope" in Proverbs 22:17- 23:11 (and 24:10-12?). But all that is for another post.

On the surface there is quite a bit of evidence concerning the process by which scribes learn to read and write alphabetic cuneiform. Dietrich, Loretz and Sanmartin, 489 - 497, identify twenty five tablets in the chapter of their book dedicated to "scribal exercises" (chapter 5). And they also label the genre of an additional seventeen other Ugaritic tablets as "scribal exercises" or possible scribal exercises. See my appendix below. These range from myths to incantations to lists of personal names. This accounting does not include the three mythological texts in the Akkadian language but written in whole or in part in the standard Ugaritic alphabet such as KTU 1.67. Nor does it include KTU 1.73 which has lines 1-7 written in the Akkadian language and lines 8-18 in the Ugaritic language all in the standard Ugaritic alphabet. With all this there are, as a matter of fact, only a very few clues as to how these texts were actually used in the training of scribes.

Learning the Alphabet

One of the things a student scribe wishing to learn to read and write alphabetic cuneiform clearly had to learn was the alphabet. No surprise there. The classic example is KTU 5.6, pictured below.


From here on I will use the words "cuneiform alphabet," "canonical alphabet" and sometimes simply "alphabet" to mean the alphabet as written on this tablet (KTU 5.6) and in this order.

But KTU 5.6 is not nearly as interesting as KTU 5.13, which contains seven lines of the first ten letters of the alphabet, four on the obverse, and one line having the complete alphabet. The first partial line, above a horizontal line, appears to be in a mature hand while the other lines are likely the work of a student scribe. In other words, the teacher wrote the first partial alphabet and the student copied it several times. KTU 5.13 obverse I have reproduced Virolleaud's, 201, autograph of the obverse on the left and circled two letters in the second line. Circled in red is the student's first attempt at a "b." Notice the three vertical wedges rather than the two in the "b of first line. Circled in blue is an error in writing the "z." Either the student failed to impress the second, lower, wedge or he mistakenly wrote a second "g." Some of the other letters are not very great themselves. But, he gets better. Notice that the vertical wedge in the "ţ" in line three, the last letter in the line, is not quite vertical and something appears to be seriously wrong with the het that precedes it. Some of the letters on the reverse are also abnormally constructed. He seems to have some trouble with the het. His first two attempts are his best. So we see that the students learned the alphabet by repetition in much the same way we learned our alphabet and we taught it to our children. Some things never change. There are about ten tablets that have only the canonical Ugaritic alphabet or a partial alphabet written, sometimes more than once, on them. There is also a tablet from Ugarit with the cuneiform alphabet written in the Old South Arabic order, RS 88.2215 (no KTU number assigned). I'll have more to say about it later.

Several tablets with the alphabet also have other things written on them. RS 94.2440 (no KTU number assigned) contains two copies of the alphabet and a list of five place names. KTU 5.9 is a practice letter with two partial alphabets, one on each edge. The tablet also has a few wedges that don't seem to form either Ugaritic letters or Akkadian signs. Three tablets with complete or partial alphabets may help in understand the place of learning the alphabet in the curriculum. KTU 5.15 contains a partial alphabet and several syllabic signs in no clear order or meaning. KTU 5.14, is somewhat famous because one of its two columns contains the canonical alphabet and the other contains phonetic equivalents in syllabic signs. The third and, from the standpoint of understanding how learning the alphabet integrated into the overall scribal curriculum, most important tablet in this group is KTU 5.16. KTU 5.16 has the alphabet repeated three times and along with part of the Ras Shamra version of the Middle Babylonian Grammatical text. (see Civil and Kennedy, 175-97, RS 20.149+). Does this mean that the alphabet was taught at the same time the student was studying the Babylonian Grammatical text? In other words, was the alphabet taught sometime after learning the Sa Syllabary/Vocabulary but before taking up Harra=hubullu or at least in that general area of the curriculum? See my discussion of the uncertain place of grammatical texts in the first post in this series. Indeed, KTU 1.96, an Ugaritic incantation with part of the "silbenalphabet," would make one think that the alphabetic writing was taken up earlier, just after the Tu-ta-ti or perhaps in parallel with it. This raises the question of why the student who wrote KTU 5.16 was still practicing his alphabet. Perhaps some students or teachers took up the alphabet earlier than others did. It may not be possible to know. Before we finalized our views on this issue, we need to deal with another set of issues about which we can only speculate.

The answers to a few questions may influence our determination as to when Ugaritic was introduced into the curriculum. Were some (all?) of the students native speakers of the Ugaritic language? Did all the students learn Akkadian and Ugaritic? Were there non-native speakers of Ugaritic that needed to learn that language as a second language? And did any of this affect the curriculum as far as learning to read and write Ugaritic? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. I think we can say with reasonable confidence that all professional scribes at Ugarit could read and write both Akkadian and Ugaritic and were likely able to translate between the two languages. The best evidence for this is the several alphabetic texts with syllabic captions. See for example KTU 4.68 and KTU 4.93. Among this group, KTU 4.340 is interesting because it has the summation in both the alphabetic and syllabic scripts. But this tablet seems to have an error in the syllabic summation, HI for MUN. Is this list of saltpans belonging to various individuals a scribal exercise or does it just contain a scribal error? There is no way of telling. On the subject of these syllabic captions, van Soldt says, "It is also worth noting that many of these syllabic captions were written in places where the scribe would look for quick reference summations, often on the edge which could be read when tablets were put on file." In addition, all the archives at Ugarit have both Akkadian and Ugaritic texts. The obverse of KTU 4.381 is list of oil jars written in Akkadain and the reverse, while more fragmented than the obverse, is a list of something (individuals who owned the oil?) in the Ugaritic alphabet. The reverse does not appear to be a translation of the obverse, but it does seem related to it. Perhaps the reverse is a continuation of the same list but in Ugaritic. It is also relevant, as van Soldt, 183, notes, the scribe Burqānu unquestionably wrote tablets in both languages. Were there exception to bilingual training? Perhaps, but I don't think the exceptions, if there were any, are very important or numerous.

On Translation

There is also some additional evidence that the scribes at Ugarit learned to translate between Ugaritic and Akkadian. At least there is evidence of translation between the two languages. The legal text/letter KTU 3.1 appears to be a translation into Ugaritic of the Akkadian text RS 17.227 and its several duplicates. In addition, the letter from the king of Trye, KTU 2.38, and the letter from the king of the Hittites, KTU 2.39, are generally thought to be translations of Akkadian originals (van Soldt, 185). I don't mean to imply that these three text were scribal exercises in translation. They were not. They were the "professional" product of such training. There is little or no evidence as to how the scribes were trained to translate. One possibility is that the teachers dictated in one language and the students wrote in a different target language. To be sure, this is speculation, but it may account for texts like KTU 5.22, which is a list of words with a title and a personal name mixed in. If my understanding of this text is correct, it has a surprisingly large number of Akkadianisms. KTU 5.23, also a list of words and short phrases, may also reflect a translation exercise. But, of course, this is largely speculation. Translation training may also account for a text like the student letter with partial alphabets on its edges (KTU 5.9) although this may simply be an exercise in letter writing like a couple of others.

Students as Native Speakers of Ugaritic

It also seems certain that most of the students were native speakers of the Ugaritic language. Were there some that weren't? Again, perhaps, but I don't think any such exceptions are all that important either. From the personal names of the student scribes that we know, it appears that they were all natives of Ugarit or vicinity (see van Soldt, 183). And it is extremely unlikely that any were native speakers of Akkadian no matter what their native language might have been. It is, in my view, unlikely that any of the students were bilingual, Akkadian/Ugaritic in the formal sense of the word. For an extremely interesting discussion of what appears to me to be a quite similar situation concerning Sumerian/Akkadian bilingual scribes in Mesopotamia, see Wood, 91-120. van Sodlt, 186, recommends we use the expression "biscriptal" rather than "bilingual" for the scribes at Ugarit. "Biscriptal" can also be applied to the Old Babylonian scribes Wood discusses and to the scribes that wrote documents such as the Amarna letters.

The Place of the Alphabet in the Curriculum and the Issue of Bilingual Training

With this thought process in mind, I think we can reasonably assume that all the student scribes at Ugarit were native speakers of Ugaritic who learned to read and write Akkadian. Further, based on the evidence provided by KTU 1.96 and the likelihood that the students were native speakers of Ugaritic it seems likely that the alphabet was introduced in parallel with the Tu-Ta-Ti. Bilingual texts like KTU 1.73 lead me to believe that the training continued in parallel. Part of the scribes training was certainly translation between Ugaritic and Akkadian.

It appears that some (all?) of these students also learned to read, write and translate Hurrian because there were a significant number of tablets in this language found among the archives. Some were written in the alphabetic script and some in the Akkadian syllabary. As indicated by the presence of alphabetic texts like the Old South Arabic abecedary (RS 88.2215, no KTU number as yet) and the "short alphabet" texts, other languages and/or alphabetic schemes were also taught at Ugarit. While the use of Hurrian and other languages at Ugarit is not exactly a detail, I don't think a lengthy discussion of it here will contribute much to our inquiry. It simply adds an additional dimension to the "biscriptal," multilingual, environment of scribal training at Ugarit (and elsewhere). It is likely that at least some of the scribes at Amarna also knew Hittite in addition to Akkadian and Egyptian. EA 31 and 32 are written in Hittite and EA 32 ends with this instruction to the scribe entrusted with replying, "You, scribe, write well to me; put down, moreover, your name. The tablets that are brought here always write in Hittite! [Moran, 103]." So there is good reason to believe that scribes where trained to read and write several languages although it is equally possible that specialized scribes, perhaps foreign native speakers, were hired to work in "minority" languages. It would be helpful if every scribe followed the instructions to "put down" his or her name and, I would add, place of birth.

The Role of Literature in Scribal Training

Having considered the "biscriptal" nature of the training, I want to turn to the literary texts that were written in alphabetic cuneiform at Ugarit. As I indicated, Dietrich, Loretz and Sanmartin identify the genre of some seventeen Ugaritic or partially Ugaritic tablets as "Scribal Exercises" or possible scribal exercises in addition to those they have collected in their chapter entitled "Scribal Exercises," chapter 5. See my appendix below. The texts on these tablets range from myths like KTU 1.9 to incantations like KTU 1.13 to lists of personal names like KTU 4.607. When the content of the tablet does not show obvious signs of being a scribal exercise (KTU 4.607, for examples contains a list of names beginning with "i"), the determination that a given text is a scribal exercise is usually made on the increased frequency of errors in letter formation, spelling or grammar or a combination of all three. Other indicators would be formal training material on the same tablet. KTU 1.96, an incantation with part of the "silbenalphabet," is an example of such a tablet.

It is not surprising that such a variety of genres is included in the repertory of scribal exercises. We saw the same thing when we investigated the use of literature in learning Akkadian. Scribes needed to know how to write letters and presumably incantations as well as how to build lists as part of the professional duties. My guess is that myths gave them an increased range of expression that allowed them to compose documents that were more than formulaic. It also provided enculturation. Learned scribes needed to be well learned. It would not be at all surprising if it turned out that other texts which do not show signs of being scribal exercises where in fact just that.

Indeed, it is possible that the role of literature in the scribal schools at Ugarit was even greater than what I outlined above. van Soldt, 187-189, suggests that Ili-malku, the scribe whose name is associated with several important mythic texts like KTU 1.4, part of the Ba'al cycle, had not completed his training when he executed these tablets.

Thus, Ili-malku most probably wrote the written versions of the Ugaritic literary texts during the final phase of his scribal training under his teacher Attūnu, who probably dictated the text to him. In his work he shows the same skill as the student scribe Yanhānu, who copied so many lexical texts. At the time Ili-malku was doing this work, he was already wearing a professional title t‛y (nqmd mlk ugrt), a phenomenon for which we find many parallels at Emar and in Mesopotamia. [p. 189, references omitted]

While he comes to this conclusion based on a variety of evidence, van Soldt's main argument rests on an analysis of the colophon of KTU 1.6 VI: 54-58 where Ili-malku specifically mentions his teacher. This is, of course, directly parallel to the colophon of the wisdom test RS 22.439 where mšip-ţi mentions his teacher ALIM.SAG?. While I find van Soldt's conclusion somewhat speculative there is enough meat in it to inspire thought and further study. If he turns out to be correct, van Soldt's conclusion has implications for the origin and existence of large mythic or epic cycles in other literatures and the possible role of scribal schools in preserving these traditions. This is particularly the case if another one of van Soldt's hypotheses is true.

The texts have come down to us in the written form. Since there are no literal duplicates to the texts and since there is no evidence that alphabetic cuneiform was written before the last phase of the Late Bronze Age, one has to assume either that the written versions came into being on the basis of existing oral traditions, or that we have here a completely new creation. . . [p. 186-7, references omitted]

In other words, it was the scribal schools that either composed these texts or, in van Soldt's view, more likely first wrote them down. One possible implication of this that the very existence of large blocks of mythic or epic written material reflecting new cultural horizons may be evidence of a scribal school.

One interesting side note: So far, no wisdom texts have been found at Ugarit in the Ugaritic language. To be sure a few wisdom sayings may be scattered throughout the literary texts but as yet the only large collections of wisdom traditions are in Akkadian. Why wisdom texts in the local native language never developed at Ugarit is a good, but unanswerable, question. This fact is surprising to me in the light of the mobility of these traditions between other languages and cultures.

Short Summary and Conclusion

As we have seen in the first two posts in this study, the evidence for the existence of formal scribal training is either obvious or speculative. Abecedaries, particularly ones with errors or the alphabet repeated several times, are strong indicators of scribal training. One should perhaps be careful of an abecedary with only a single alphabet. For example, it is not at all clear to me that the Beth Shemesh abecedary, KTU 5.24, is a scribal exercise. This is particularly true if it is the imprint of a stamp. But even the fact that it is written around the margin of the tablet would lead one to think it has some purpose other than training.

Other signs of scribal training within the context of learning an alphabet are texts that all begin with the same letter or word or tablets that have two or more unrelated literary genres. List of names without any indication of a relationship between those listed or any sign of common interest of purpose are also indications of scribal training.

Two other, more speculative, but also more interesting, indicators of a scribal school may be the presence of multilingual material and large literary works. Multilingual texts that show signs of training are certainly indicative of the presence of a scribal school. Less certain are texts in different languages at the same location that do not show other signs of being used in training. Remember, we are looking for signs of scribal schools and not just learned scribes.

The idea that the very presence of large literary works is an indication of the existence of a scribal school is very intriguing. But, because of the compounding of probabilities, the idea remains highly speculative and should be used only in conjunction with more certain indicators. However, this will not be the last time that this idea comes up in this series.

Update August 1, 2006
Fixed a couple of the more grievous typos


List of Possible Scribal Exercises Not Included in Dietrich, Loretz and Sanmartin's KTU 5.XX Chapter

Nearly certain scribal exercises all or partially in the Ugarit language and alphabet:

KTU 1.8: myth
KTU 1.9: myth
KTU 1.13: incantation, myth
KTU 1.73: lines 1-7 in alphabetic Akkadian, lines 8-18 Ugaritic, religious text
KTU 1.105: ritual, list of sacrifices?
KTU 1.123: prayer, ritual?
KTU 1.133: myth, scribal exercise
KTU 2.7: letter, scribal exercise
KTU 4.607: list of names beginning with "i" plus some other, almost impossible to read material, scribal exercise

Possible scribal exercises all or partially in the Ugarit language and alphabet:

KTU 1.7: myth
KTU 1.10: myth
KTU 1.65: incantation or myth
KTU 1.74: religious text?
KTU 1.79: list of sacrifices?
KTU 1.80: list of sacrifices?
KTU 1.93: myth

Likely scribal exercises in other languages but written in alphabetic cuneiform

KTU 1.30: Hurrian, religious text?
KTU 1.67: Akkadian (alphabetic) religions text
KTU 1.69: Hurrian, ??
KTU 1.70: Akkadian (alphabetic) religions text


Dietrich, Manfried, Oswald Lorenz, and Joaquín Sanmartin, The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places (KTU:second, enlarged edition), Abhandlungen zur Alt-Syrien Palästinas (ALASP), 8, Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995

Izre'el, Shlomo, The Amarna Scholarly Tablets, Groningen: Styx, 1997

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

Nougayrol, Jean, "Textes Suméro-Accadiens des Archives et Bibliothèques Privées d'Ugarit," Ugaritica V, Mission de Ras Shamra, XVI, Paris: P. Geuthner, 1968, 1-446

Moran, William, The Amarna Letters, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1987

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

Virolleaud, Charles, "Textes en Cunéiformes Alphabétique des Archives Est, Ouest et Centrales," Le Palais Royal d'Ugarit II, Mission de Ras Shamra, VII, Paris: P. Geuthner, 1957

Wood, Christopher, "Bilingualism, Scribal Learning, and the Death of Sumerian," The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Seminars Number 2, Seth Sanders, ed., Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006

Posted by DuaneSmith at July 30, 2006 11:40 AM | Read more on Scribal Schools |

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


What a fine little essay! I'm adding a link to it to my own little Ugaritic course and making mention of it to several interested persons. Thanks for such good work!

Posted by: Jim at July 31, 2006 06:56 AM

Dear Duane,
I read your interesting post. I would only tell you that if you would recognize a scribal school in Ugarit (or in Jerusalem), you have to pay attention also to the find spots of the tablets.
I agree with you that there are possible signs within the tablet that allow to recognize the tablet as scribal exercise, but it would be even more interesting to find out a scribal school (with its Sitz im Leben)!
For example, the ugaritic house known as "house of Binu Agaptarri" or "du prête magiciens" should be also a "religious scribal-school". Actually we have two different archives of tablets in two different zones of the house: the first archive has 86 texts (almost all alphabetic): 56 texts are religious, 10 economic, 3 lexical (sillabic ones), 2 letters and 15 difficult to classify (fragments, or scribal exercises or only signs). Near this first archive it was found out many cultic vessels and many liver models (extispicies) that strengthen the religious character of the rooms.
The second archive of the same house (the famous "lamaštu") has 76 texts (all sillabic!): 35 texts are lexical or school exercises, 13 religious (against Lamaštu), 9 economic, 8 literary, 6 letters and 5 juridical.
If these two catalogs of data (and others) are joined, it is plausible that this house had two functions: religious in the northern part (the first archive) and scribal religious school in the southern part (the second archive).
Here you could recognize a real scribal school with its "Sitz im Leben"!

Best wishes,
Paolo Merlo

(Reference: J.-C. Courtois, «La maison du prête aux modèles de poumon et de foies d’Ugarit», in Ugaritica VI, Paris 1969, pp. 91-119).

Posted by: Paolo Merlo at August 1, 2006 02:52 AM

I have elevated my response to Professor Merlo's comment to a post of its own.

Posted by: Duane at August 1, 2006 09:50 AM

Post a comment

Please read Abnormal Interest's Comments Policy.


Email Address:


Remember Me?


The following HTML tags are allowed in comments:

and no others.