Why All These Abecedaries From The Royal Palace of Ugarit?

After more than a year of waffling, I’ve decided to formally write up my random speculations on the possibility that Niqmaddu (III?) and perhaps other kings of Ugarit were literate. I want to see if the resultant paper will convince first myself and then anyone else. I’m in what I think of as the second, and most tedious, phase of the literature search. This work takes lots of time with often minimal payback. I may have something to share from this search later. I’ve shared parts of the these speculations elsewhere. Today, I thought I’d share a little snipped of some additional very circumstantial and quite curious evidence. Well, at least its evidence for something; exactly what I’m not completely sure.
Depending on what and how one counts, there were eight locations at Ugarit where excavators found assemblages of classical Akkadian school tablets generally indicative of scribal training: 1) Rap’anu’s house, 2) Room 34, perhaps associated with Rap’anu’s house or that of his neighbor, 3) the Southern Villa (the Tablet House), 4) the Lamaštu archive, 5) the Central Villa, 6) Rašap’abu’s house, 7) the House of the Scholar (the house of the ‘letter’) but some of these tablets may have actually come from the adjacent house of Rašap’abu, and 8) the Royal Palace. Excavators also found somewhat less definitive assemblages of such tablets at other locations; the house of Yabninu (Southern Palace) and the house of the Hurrian Priest come to mind. In addition, nearby Ras Ibn Hani yielded a few typical school tablets.
There are fourteen tablets with abecedaries that reflect the canonical order of the Ugaritic alphabet from the city of Ugarit. Half of them, seven, come from the Royal Palace. This is by far more than from any other locations where, it is reasonable to assume, students learned to read and write Ugaritic; the next closest number is two tablets each from the vicinity of house of Rap’anu and Room 10 of the House of the Hurrian Priest.
One should compare this seeming disproportionately large number of abecedaries from the Royal Palace with the relatively few Akkadian, mostly lexical, school texts found there: nine compared with over 50 from the Southern Villa (Tablet House) and well over 100 from the house of Rap’anu. To be sure, the number of Akkadian school texts from the Royal Palace compares favorably with the number from the Central Villa (6) and the house of Rašap’abu (9). There is some danger in making too much of these numbers. Many questions are unanswered or unanswerable. How many master texts did each location maintain? How complete were their sets? How long and why did they keep student work?

Here is the list of abecedaries from Royal Palace (I provide the KTU number, a brief description of the content of the tablet and an indication of its find spot):
  • KTU 5.5, abecedary fragment (last three letters), west entrance, room 3(?)
  • KTU 5.6, full abecedary, west entrance, room 3(?)
  • KTU 5.8, partial abecedary (through w,) east area, room 45
  • KTU 5.9, letter with two partial (through y) abecedaries and individual letter exercise, west area, room 73
  • KTU 5.13, 6 multiple lines of partial abecedaries (through ), the first in a practiced hand, followed by one complete abecedary plus a large letter z, southwest area room 81
  • KTU 5.14, complete alphabet with syllabic equivalents, southwest room 81
  • KTU 5.25, syllabic legal text followed by a fragmentary but likely complete abecedary, central area, courtyard IV

Another certain alphabetic school text, although not an abecedary, KTU 5.7, also came from the general area of the west palace entrance, room 3. The Royal Palace was a large complex. It covered over 7,000 square meters at the time of its final destruction. There is strong evidence, staircases etc, that much, if not all, of the palace had more than one story. It had nearly 100 rooms on the ground floor and several courtyards. If one looks at the physical distribution of the abecedaries found there, they are from all over the place – from the west entrance, or more likely from rooms above it, in the northwest corner of the palace; to room 45 in the eastern part of the complex; to room 81 near the southern extreme of the palace complex. I’m not sure what to make of this aside from noting the appearance that training in the Ugaritic alphabet occurred throughout the complex. The find spots of the few syllabic school texts discovered in the Royal Palace seem to cluster around room 63, part of the central courtyard complex. One syllabic school text, an Akkadian/Sumerian multilingual grammatical text, was found in the west entrance near two of the abecedaries. When, I told Shirley about the distribution of the school tablets, she said that the real scholars had their quarters in the center part of the palace, but the royal kids studied wherever they desired. I wish I was so sure of this and sure that the students were really the children of the king. But I do like the idea. There may be a footnote from this particular observation but little more. I’m still working out how the find spots of these tablets relate to the find spots of the many archival tablets found in the Royal Palace. Bordreuil and Padree have much of this information with regard to the texts in Ugaritic but the exact finds spots of most the Akkadian archives from the palace are somewhat harder to come by.
For completeness, here is a list of abecedaries from places other than the Royal Palace:

  • KTU 5.4, complete abecedary, Northwestern area across the street from the Royal Palace sometimes thought to be the residence of the queen mother, also sometimes called the house of the lead ingots
  • KTU 5:12, complete abecedary followed by a partial abecedary (through g) in a different hand (?), the house of Yabninu (Southern Palace) room 204
  • KTU 5:16, four fragmentary partial (?) abecedaries of differing lengths, the second abecedary is complete and others may have been also, Rap’anu’s house (?), room 34
  • KTU 5:17, two complete abecedaries separated by a scribe line plus three syllabic signs, Rap’anu’s house, room 5
  • KTU 5:19, a complete abecedary plus three additional letters, q, h, ẓ, Southern Villa (the Tablet House)
  • KTU 5.20, complete abecedary followed by another complete abecedary that mirrors the letter groupings by line of the first abecedary, House of the Hurrian Priest Room 10
  • KTU 5:21 complete abecedary on two lines followed by the letter s on a third line, House of the Hurrian Priest Room 10

There are two other cuneiform abecedaries in roughly the order of the Old South Arabic alphabet rather than the “normal” order, one from Beth Shemesh, KTU 5.24, and the other from house of Urtēnu at Ugarit, RS 88.2215. While these two abecedaries are abnormally interesting and occupy special places in the history of the cuneiform alphabet, they do not seem to me to be within the scope of normal scribal training at Ugarit.

Bordreuil, Pierre and Dennis Pardee, La Trouvaille epigraphique de l’Ougarit, Paris: Editions Recherche sur les civilisations, 1989-1990
van Soldt, W. H., “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

6 thoughts on “Why All These Abecedaries From The Royal Palace of Ugarit?”

  1. Listen to Shirley. Moms have insights that males cannot see.
    For instance, there is group of 32 cuneiform tablets that are classified as early and “primitive.” Each tablet is roughly 1-1/2 inches square. Each is baked and the edges are carefully rounded. The tablets are read by turning clockwise and the entire series proceeds from simple to complex sentences. The later ones have sentences on both sides.
    All I could think when I saw the way these were classified, was, “for heaven’s sake, can’t you people recognize a primer when you see one?”
    They are all just the size to fit in a small hand. Small children love turning things in their hands. Early? Primitive? Look at the really important information in those tablets. It’s ingenious; a “See Dick Run” of antiquity.
    But, then, who sits with a child and teaches him or her to read? Dads off in the who knows where or moms back home? Besides, the men who found those tablets were bachelors.

  2. This is fascinating. Did I understand correctly (I think I was reading between the lines of your post 😉 that there were a higher proportion of Ugaritic abecedaries in the palace, but that there were significant numbers of Akkadian scholastic texts both there and elsewhere, but that in the palace the Akkadian scholastic texts were concentrated while the Ugaritic abecedaries were more scattered?
    That sounds like evidence for more widespread literacy with the adoption of an alphabet… if not the royal kids, then someone was learning to read and/or write in several parts of the palace…
    Please tell me if this is op the pole, I am NOT an archaeologist, not even an amateur one!

  3. Rochelle,
    Thanks for the info. I will need to look at these tablets. I always listen to Shirley!

  4. Tim,
    You read my post correctly. I’m still trying to figure out how much can be made of this. First, there is a growing body of evidence and opinion that by neo-Assyrian times at least some professionals other than scribes who could and did read and write in Akkadian. How early this started in not clear. I can’t find any evidence that anyone other than a professional scribe knew Akkadian at Ugarit. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t such folks. It only means that I can’t find evidence of it and, as far as I know, no one else can either. Second, we must remember that children learn to read and write Chinese at about the same pace as do those of us who learn to read and write with an alphabet. I think literacy depends more on cultural factors than issues having to do with the complexity of the writing system. If one or more kings of Ugarit were literate, they learned to read and write in their native language rather than Akkadian, a foreign language to nearly all, if not all, the inhabitants of Ugarit. There may have been native Akkadian speakers at Ugarit; there may have even been an Akkadian speaking scribe or two but they were very much in the minority. To be sure, written Akkadian was hard to learn to read and write but so is Chinese.
    Bottom line: While it may have been easier to learn to read and write in an alphabet, I think it goes well beyond the evidence to think that the advent of the alphabet, a concept already quite old at the time of the Ugaritic alphabetic texts, increased the literacy rate without the considerable, and more important, influence of other cultural factors. I could be wrong.

  5. This suggestion is really off the wall, so please be gentle with me. When did people start putting things in alphabetical order? It strikes me that a portable abecedary would be very useful for someone of marginal literacy who was expected to put things in their correct place.

  6. Joe,
    Thanks for the interesting suggestion. School texts, written in syllabic cuneiform, with their entries in fixed order go back to very early times. These are not in what we would call alphabetical order in part because they were not written in an alphabet. But their official fixed order continued in use for well over two thousand years. Some of these texts were used to practice writing the signs, others to help develop vocabulary. The later were more or less dictionaries although we would think the order, often topical, strange and overly difficult. Scholars call this kind of text a lexical text. Various types of texts had their own specific but usually fixed order.
    While alphabetical alphabet writing is much older than the cuneiform alphabet from Ugarit, I believe the Ugaritic abecedaries are the earliest examples of a fixed alphabetical order for which we have evidence. Tablets like, KTU 5.13, were quite clearly student exercises for the purpose of teaching the student how to properly form the letters. I believe that master scribes prepared some, KTU 5.6 for example, as demonstration tablets of properly formed letters which the students copied unto another tablet or writing board. I doubt that any were used for the purpose you suggested. There were filing systems, but those tended to be topical rather than alphabetical. In fact, several administrative tablet, written in the Ugarit alphabet, have what we would think of as there filing information written in the Akkadian syllabary rather with alphabetical signs.

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