Sumerian School Texts


The Eduba Curriculum:

The scribal school curriculum was divided into two phases of education, basic and advanced. A scribal apprentice would begin his training at a very young age in early childhood (5-7 years old). Only wealthy or elite families had the means to send their children to school. There is evidence of young girls being educated as scribes but the majority of students were young boys.

At school the students first learned how to form the different types of tablets required for various documents. A student would learn to form the primary rectangular tablet and practice dividing it into columns and lines. For shorter exercises, small round tablets could be made to fit in the palm of his hand. The prism is a more complex form that has 4-6 sides and has a stick in its center along the vertical axis to allow for easy rotation.

Many of the school tablets were reused in several ways. Often students erased their work in order to write over it again and again. This would save them the trouble of creating numerous small tablets for one exercise. Some tablets have also been found incorporated into the structure of buildings as bricks. In some instances this has served to protect the tablets enabling them to endure to present day.

The dubsar apprentice spent their days practicing their writing and memorizing lessons. Niek Veldhuis, an expert on Mesopotamian scribal education, identifies four patterns of learning in the eduba: 1. Writing techniques 2. Sumerian nouns 3. Sign lists and mathematics 4. Sumerian language (learned through literature) The young scribe began his education by learning to write simple, individual signs based off of Syllable Alphabet A or B (single sign lists). Next he moved onto the TU-TA-TI list where signs are grouped phonetically by their first phoneme, alternating the vowels: u,a,i (ex. mu-ma-mi, gu-ga-gi). After the basic signs had been acquired the scribe began writing lists of personal names to practice short Sumerian constructions. This completed the elementary exercises. Then the scribe would move onto the simple set of lexical lists (known as the hur-ra = hubullu lexical lists), where he wrote out semantically grouped vocabulary for types of trees, metals, animals, stones, plants, clothing, geography and foodstuffs. Upon successful completion of this corpus, the young dubsar would be given more advanced lexical lists to copy and memorize (e.g. acrographic, bilingual or compound sign lists). In fact, committing to memory the scribal exercises was an integral part of their education. There is no evidence that the teacher had his own copy of texts or exercises, therefore most scholars believe instruction was given orally since the teachers had committed the lessons to memory (as a product of their own scribal education).

To this would be added training in mathematics, including simple arithmetic, metrology, algebra, geometry and some trigonometry. Scribes were responsible not only for writing but for calculating quantities and surveying fields. Given the emphasis upon administrative and economic documents in Mesopotamia, training in mathematics was paramount.

As the final step in the basic phase of training was instruction in writing contracts and other business documents. Scribes were used in a variety of ways by businessmen including drafting letters and contracts. The average Mesopotamian was illiterate and relied on a scribe to write and read all of their correspondences. Many wealthy households employed their own scribe. The palaces of Mesopotamia kept large numbers of scribes for all of their daily communication needs.

The study of proverbs linked the basic training to the advanced curriculum. It exposed the scribe to literary forms and language preparing them for the demands of such complex texts. However, not all scribes continued onto the advanced training in literature. Scribes were able to specialize in a particular field, such as legal affairs, field surveying, palace administration, or domestic affairs. Such employment would not require the knowledge of epics and hymns.

For those who continued their training there was a rigid outline of literature that Steve Tinney has divided into two categories: the Tetrad and the Decad. These are groups of four and ten literary pieces that were standard practice in edubas. The divisions, though, do not adhere to modern standards. The categories include both hymns and epics with no apparent method of categorization apparent to the modern reader. To the Tetrad and Decad were added 14 lesser texts, practiced to varying degrees at different edubas.


  • Black, Jeremy, Graham Cunningham, Eleanor Robson, and Gabor Zolyomi, trans. The Literature of Ancient Sumer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Robson, Eleanor. “The Tablet House: A Scribal School in Old Babylonian Nippur.” Revue d’Assyriologie et D’Archeologie Orientale 95:1 (2001): 39-66.
  • Sjoberg, A.W. “The Old Babylonian Eduba.” In Sumerological Studies in Honor of Thorkild Jacobsen on this 70th Birthday (AS 20). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.
  • Vanstiphout, H. L. J. “How Did They Learn Sumerian?” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, 31:2 (Apr., 1979): 118-126.
  • Veldhuis, Niek. “Elementary Education at Nippur: The Lists of Trees and Wooden Objects.” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Groningen, 1997).
  • Wilson, Mark. Education in the Earliest Schools: Cuneiform Manuscripts in the Cotsen Collection. Los Angeles: Cotsen Occasional Press, 2008.



sumerian_school_texts.txt · Last modified: 2016/04/18 14:37 by lafont
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