In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Schools in Ancient Mesopotamia

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and General Overviews

Biblical Studies Schools in Ancient Mesopotamia
Niek Veldhuis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 April 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0196


Throughout the history of cuneiform (c. 3200 BCE–100 CE) evidence exists for scribal training, the teaching of scribal skills, and the transmission of values, attitudes, and knowledge necessary for being a proper scribe. This evidence consists of exercises of various kinds as well as archaeological remains that indicate the use of a particular house or room as a locus for teaching. For a proper evaluation of the evidence it is important to distinguish between two types of teaching: formal schooling, which was probably first introduced in the early second millennium (Old Babylonian period), and apprenticeship, which may have been the most common road to literacy throughout Mesopotamian history. Formal schooling followed a more or less set curriculum that consisted of copying traditional textbooks. Apprentices, on the other hand, almost immediately started to write documents, following the example of the master. In an apprenticeship, literacy was acquired in the same way as one would learn to be a potter or a farmer. By design, however, an apprentice practiced by helping his master to write real-life documents, so that “exercises” are much more difficult, if not impossible, to identify. One may assume, therefore, that the great majority of scribes throughout Mesopotamian history were educated through apprenticeships, but the actual evidence we have in the form of exercises and school texts derives from formal education. Recent research on Mesopotamian literacy and scribal teaching has developed in two different directions. Much work has been done since the 1990s on the reconstruction of the teaching materials and curricula of formal schools of different periods. These scribal programs tended to be extensive and learned, focusing on the construction of an imagined past and on the complexities of cuneiform, imparting a learned elite identity to its graduates who acquired a set of skills that was very rare. On the other hand, students of cuneiform literacy have emphasized that the ability to write was wide spread, in particular in the Old Babylonian period. These studies focus not on the scholarly aspects of literacy, but rather on functional issues, such as the minimal number of signs that one needs to know (actively and passively) to be an effective scribe.

Reference Works and General Overviews

Much research has been undertaken on the Mesopotamian school since the 1990s. This research is summarized in Waetzoldt and Cavigneaux 2009. An overview of the history of lexical lists and their uses in scribal training appears in Veldhuis 2014. Charpin 2010 provides an accessible introduction to issues of reading and writing in ancient Mesopotamia, including aspects of teaching and literacy.

  • Charpin, Dominique. Reading and Writing in Babylon. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

    Accessible and well-informed introduction to the role of reading and writing in ancient Mesopotamia, primarily (but not exclusively) focused on the Old Babylonian period (c. 1800 BCE). Issues of schools and education are primarily addressed in chapter 1 (pp. 17–67).

  • Veldhuis, Niek C. History of the Cuneiform Lexical Tradition. Guides to the Mesopotamian Textual Record 6. Münster, Germany: Ugarit-Verlag, 2014.

    Overview of the history of cuneiform lexical texts from the archaic period (late fourth millennium) to the beginning of the common era, with emphasis on the educational, scholarly, and other uses of these lists in the context of contemporaneous knowledge traditions.

  • Waetzoldt, Hartmut, and Antoine Cavigneaux. “Schule.” Reallexikon der Assyriologie und Vorderasiatischen Archäologie 12 (2009): 294–309.

    Encyclopedia article with extensive bibliography and brief discussions of the evidence from all periods of Mesopotamian history.

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