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Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale

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The traditional approach to the study of scribal training has been to focus on the evidence from literature about school, especially the Sumerian eduba texts of the early second millennium BCE which purport to describe Old Babylonian school life (most recently Volk 1996; 2000). These compositions are illuminating and often entertaining, but have three major limitations as historical evidence (cf. Civil 1980: 229). First, they present a very stylised and even exaggerated picture of scribal schooling, in which we cannot disentangle realistic representation from heightened reality or even wilful misrepresentation for humorous effect. Second, even if we were able to separate the truth from the fiction in these accounts, we would have a very generalised image that does not acknowledge chronological change or geographical variation, or the role of individual anomaly or innovation in the educational process. Third, the eduba stories tell us nothing about the physical environment of scribal schools.


More recently, there has been a move towards examining the material culture of scribal education, as scholars such as Tinney (1998; 1999), Veldhuis (1997; 1997–98; 2000) and Gesche (2000) have taken physical tablets rather than disembodied text as their primary subject matter. By emphasising the multi-textual tablet as a by-product of an educational process they have brought major new insights to our understanding of ancient Mesopotamian schooling. This paper aims to take that approach one step further, by examining the archaeology and cuneiform tablets of just one scribal school. [1][1] Of course, it is not the first to do so: see Charpin... “House F” was in operation in Nippur during the 1740s BCE (the early reign of king Samsu-iluna). [2][2] According to the conventional middle chronology (e.g.,... It was excavated by the joint Chicago-Philadelphia expedition in 1951–52, yielding nearly one and a half thousand fragments of tablets. [3][3] Previous studies of House F and its neighbours were... Treating these finds—most of the so-called 3N-T tablets—not as exemplars of Sumerian literary compositions or lexical lists but as the by-products of scribal training in one individual school allows us to pose (if not always to answer satisfactorily) some fundamental questions about the physical environment of education and the consistency and function of the scribal “curriculum” in the early second millennium BCE. This article is much more an interim report than the definitive results of a completed study (which will appear in due course in monographic form). Nevertheless, as issues of Mesopotamian literacy and education are in such sharp focus at the moment, it seemed an appropriate moment to add further evidence and interpretation to the debate.

The archaeology of House F


House F was a small domestic dwelling in the middle of urban Nippur, just 250 metres south of the temple of Enlil in the excavation Area TA (Fig. 1, Fig. 2). [4][4] TA was dug on the mound now known as Tablet Hill, due... It was probably built some time in the early eighteenth century, while Nippur was under the rule of Rim-Sin of Larsa (Stone 1987: 35, 119). The house consisted of a small courtyard, locus 192, with three small rooms (191, 189, and 184) ranged to its northwest and a larger back room or courtyard, 205, to its northeast. The entrance hall, locus 203, was only partially excavated, but the total usable floor area of the house must have been about 45 square metres (Fig. 3). [5][5] Stone’s figure of 35.58 m2 excludes courtyard 192 (Stone...

Fig. 1 - Excavation plan of Nippur, showing the location of Area TA (Gibson et al. 2001: fig. 1)Fig. 1
Fig. 2 - Excavation plan of Area TA (after Stone 1987: pl. 19)Fig. 2
Fig. 3 - Composite excavation plan of House F, Level 10 (after Stone 1987: pls. 17–19)Fig. 3

The excavators found several dozen fragments of domestic pottery, in rooms 205 and 184, as well as about ten pieces of figurines and plaques in rooms 205 and 191. [6][6] McCown and Haines (1967: 116, pls. 88, 95.5, 96.1,... A fragment of a gaming board made of tablet clay, rather like the Royal Game of Ur, was also recovered from the house (Fig. 4). There was a bread oven in the front room, 191, and benches in the back room 205 and the courtyard 192. The doorways between the rooms and the courtyard had been altered at various points of the house’s history. It was abandoned some time after 1739, the tenth year of Samsu-iluna’s reign, and later rebuilt (Civil 1979: 8; Stone 1987: 57, 119). [7][7] The stratigraphy of House F has been re-assessed twice:...

Fig. 4 - Fragment of a gaming board from House FFig. 4

As described so far, there is nothing to distinguish House F from its immediate neighbours. However, while most houses excavated in Area TA yielded at most a few handfuls of tablets totalling 209, House F produced 1, 425 fragments, over 85% of the entire number found in TA that season (Fig. 5; McCown and Haines 1967: pl. 160 D). And whereas the tablets in the other houses were a roughly equal mixture of administrative and legal documents, Sumerian literature, and elementary school tablets, in House F only 2% of the tablets are clearly archival in character. Over 50% contain Sumerian literature, 42% are other school documents, and 6% remain to be identified (Fig. 7).

Fig. 5 - Number of tablet fragments found in House F and the rest of TAFig. 5
Fig. 7 - Subject matter of the tablets in House F and TAFig. 7

The tablets were shared between the University Museum, Philadelphia, the Chicago Oriental Institute, and Iraq Museum in Baghdad (Fig. 6). [8][8] The 733 tablets in Philadelphia include the 533 fragments... I have personally studied all the tablets in Chicago and Philadelphia, but most of my information about the Baghdad tablets comes from casts in Chicago and the excavation notebooks held in Philadelphia. I have recently begun the task of examining the tablets in the Iraq Museum, but meanwhile the numerical data I give here are necessarily provisional. [9][9] For this reason I have not used rigorous statistical...

Fig. 6 - Number of museum TA tablet fragments in collectionsFig. 6

The Sumerian word for school, eduba, is often understood to mean “tablet house” after the Akkadian b?t ?uppim. [10][10] E.g., Pearce (1995: 2270). Volk (2000: 3) has convincingly... The huge numbers of literary and scholarly tablets in House F strongly suggest that it functioned as a school as well as a house. But House F was a tablet house in another sense too: the tablets were built into the very floors, walls, and furniture of the rooms. The large number of joins between rooms and across substrata implies that the tablets are a homogeneous group (Fig. 8). The number of tablets comes down to about 1, 300 after known joins, but that total should decrease further, to less than a thousand, as more fragments are identified.


How do we know that the tablets were not taken from some other place to be used as building material? [11][11] Cf. No. 1, Broad Street in Ur, where a large number... The answer lies in some of the household furnishings (Fig. 3). In the northern corner of courtyard 192, next to one of the benches, a baked-brick box had been sunk into the floor. When excavated it contained a large storage jar filled with small pots. At the other end of the bench, by the doorway to room 189, a smaller box was later used. A further box was discovered at the eastern end of the bench in 205. It had been built of whole tablets plastered over, and was found filled with tablet fragments and clay (McCown and Haines 1967: 64, pl. 160 E-F). These boxes, it appears, functioned as recycling bins, into which old tablets could be thrown for soaking, reshaping and re-using (Faivre 1995).

Fig. 8 - Joins between tablet fragments across floors and rooms in House F Level 10 [12][12] The thickness of the lines between rooms and floors...Fig. 8

Recycling bins are associated with school tablets in other houses too. For instance, a more substantial house in Sippir Amn?num was occupied by two successive gala-mah priests, Inana-mansum and his son Ur-Utu, and their families from 1655 to 1629, a century after the heyday of House F (Gasche 1989; Gasche and Dekiere 1991). In its courtyard the excavators found a baked brick bin with fragments of 65 school tablets and fragments scattered in and around it (Tanret 1982; Gasche 1989: 19, pl. 9; Tanret 2002), from which the excavators concluded that the yard was used as a school during Inana-mansum’s time—perhaps to teach Ur-Utu himself (Gasche 1989: 20; Tanret 2002). As well as the school tablets, of course, the gala-mahs left a large and very informative household archive (Van Lerberghe and Voet 1991), from which much has been deduced about their family and professional affairs. [13][13] E.g., Dekiere 1994; Janssen 1991, 1992, 1996; Janssen... In contrast, we know almost nothing yet about the inhabitants of House F, apart from their educational activities. [14][14] Eighteen fragments of Akkadian letters from Level 10...

Elementary education in House F


The school tablets in House F fall neatly into two more-or-less equal halves: Sumerian literature, which I discuss in the following section, and the lists on which elementary education was based. Civil (1979: 5–7; 1995: 2308) identified four different tablet formats [15][15] Tinney (1999: 160) has recently elaborated on this... were used for school lists in Old Babylonian Nippur; in addition it may be useful to distinguish prisms from other large tablets (Table 1). [16][16] Some or all of these tablet formats were used outside...

Table 1 - Simple physical typology of elementary school tablets from NippurTable 1

The Type II tablets are the most useful for recovering information about the educational curriculum. It has long been known that the obverse of these tablets each contains an extract from a composition that a student was learning for the first time: the good version on the left is by the teacher (or an advanced student), and the poor copy (occasionally two copies) on the right is by the student, who often wrote, erased, and re-wrote several times. 3N-T 397 for instance (Fig. 9), has eleven lines from the middle of Syllable Alphabet B on the left of the obverse; the student’s copy on the right has been erased ready for re-copying. The first thirty lines of the same list cover the three columns of the reverse.

Fig. 9 - 3N-T 397 = UM 55–21–320 (obverse and reverse), a Type II tablet from House FFig. 9

Niek Veldhuis studied Type II tablets recovered from all over Nippur (Velduis 1997: 40–63). He proposed that the longer extract on the reverse was typically by the same student who wrote the obverse, repeating passages of a composition he had learned earlier. Veldhuis was thus able to reconstruct the elementary scribal curriculum from Old Babylonian Nippur by correlating the contents of the obverses and reverses of Type II tablets. [18][18] He has also found a convincing curricular sequence... His results show consistent patterns of learning, which he grouped into four phases: writing techniques; Sumerian nouns and nominal phrases; sign lists and arithmetic; and Sumerian language (Table 2). Only in the third phase was he unable to determine the exact order of the curriculum (Veldhuis 1997: 58).

Table 2 - The elementary scribal curriculum in Nippur (Veldhuis 1997: 63)Table 2

The Type II tablets from House F comprise some 16% of Veldhuis’s 1, 500-strong dataset. Preliminary analysis of the House F tablets alone, using Veldhuis’s methodology, therefore not surprisingly shows a similar, although not identical picture (Table 3).


Of the very elementary writing exercises, tu-ta-ti is not attested at all in House F, while there is only one exemplar of the simplest practice in sign writing. There are abundant copies of Syllable Alphabet B and the personal name lists, on the other hand, strongly suggesting that these two exercises comprised the entire first curricular phase in House F. The second phase, namely the thematic noun lists, is entirely as expected. The third phase comprises the sign lists and the arithmetical lists. At this point, where Veldhuis’s conclusions for the whole of Nippur are uncertain, we can make a more concrete statement for House F. It is clear that the three acrographic lists were taught first, followed by the professions list Proto-Lu and/or the sign list Proto-Ea. Weights and measures followed by multiplications and divisions were next, while Proto-Diri, the list of compound signs, was the last in the sequence. The fourth and final phase is exactly as Veldhuis demonstrated. The proverb collection most highly attested is SP 2+6 with 28 copies, [19][19] See Veldhuis (2000) for the join between SP 2 and SP... followed by SP 1 (7 copies) and SP 3 (6 copies).

Table 3 - The order of the elementary curriculum in House F[20][20] Of all types, not only Type II. The numbers in the...Table 3

This comparison between Nippur in general and House F in particular strongly suggests that the order of the curriculum varied from school to school, even within Nippur, although the actual contents of the curriculum were substantially the same. Remarkably few House F tablets contain compositions which fall outside this scheme (although it must be remembered that over 70 exemplars of elementary lists remain unidentified on House F tablets): there is just one copy each of Ugumu and OB Lu, and four of Proto-Aa. However, the picture may get more complicated as further identifications are made.


Each tablet type, it appears, had a different function. The short extracts on Type II/1 and Type III tablets were deployed in a student’s first encounters with a composition, as he memorised it section by section. The longer passages on Types I, II/2, and P tablets, on the other hand, seem to be written in order to revise earlier work, consolidating individually memorised sections into lengthier segments. I have presented the detailed evidence for this argument using the arithmetical lists as a case study (Robson 2002). This shows an even, if thin, distribution of Type II/1 and Type III tablets across the multiplication series but a high preponderance of Type I and Type II/2 tablets covering only the first sections. (There are no Type P prisms bearing multiplications in House F.) It thus appears that students initially learned the whole series but revised only the beginning—again and again. This pattern of learning is also suggested by the numbers of tablets attested across the series of thematic noun lists: there are many more exemplars from the beginning of the series than from the end (Table 3).


The two-fold functional distinction is also reflected in the number of each tablet type attested in House F, after known joins are taken in to account (Fig. 10). My data collection is unfinished as I have as yet had access to very few of the Baghdad tablets, and it is often not possible to determine tablet typology from the Chicago casts. The exact numbers should thus be taken with a large pinch of salt (as should all of those presented here). Nevertheless, as there is no reason to suppose that the tablet types are not randomly distributed across the three museum collections, the broad sweep of these crude and provisional results are still striking. Type IV tablets are almost never attested in House F compared to the other houses in TA; in Houses G and K, for instance, around half of the elementary school tablets are Type IV buns (Fig. 2; Fig. 10). It is not at all clear to me whether the House F teacher disliked Type IV tablets as teaching media, or as a suitable building material. Type II tablets, on the other hand, make up some two thirds of the surviving House F elementary tablets. Again, this may be a reflection of their suitability as hefty substitute bricks, but that factor alone would not account for the fact that they outnumber the similarly sized Type I tablets by a ratio of about 5:1. Perhaps their dual role in initial exposure to new material as well as in revision made them particularly attractive as efficient scholastic media.

Fig. 10 - Typological distribution of elementary tablets in House F and TAFig. 10

Sumerian literature in House F


The other large group of tablets in House F, as mentioned above, contained Sumerian literature. Even taking joins into account, this makes a corpus of nearly 600 tablets attesting over eighty different literary compositions, in all five of Miguel Civil’s generical categories (Fig. 11; Fig. 12): myths and epics; city laments and hymns to rulers; law codes and literary letters; hymns to deities; and school dialogues, disputations and wisdom literature. [21][21] This is also the typology followed by the Electronic... However, as will become clear, this categorisation is a modern one and does not reflect ancient scholastic usage. I present the data in this format initially in order to provide an overview of the material in terms that we are familiar with. Some forty fragments, just over 5% of the pieces, remain to be identified.

Fig. 11 - Number of Sumerian literary tablets in House FFig. 11
Fig. 12 - Number of Sumerian literary compositions in House FFig. 12

House F has given us an average of eight cuneiform sources for each composition found there, but in fact the sources are not distributed at all evenly (Fig. 13). If each literary work in the house had originally been recorded on roughly the same number of tablets, and those tablets had been broken or lost randomly, we would expect most compositions to have between four and twelve sources each, with a very few found either on one fragment alone or on many. The picture we get is very different: nearly fifty compositions are found on one, two, or three fragments, while over twenty of them have more than ten exemplars. In fact, our graph shows two different corpora: one large group of compositions written on just a few tablets each; and a smaller group, each written on an average of eighteen tablets. What are we to make of this?

Fig. 13 - Tablets bearing Sumerian literary compositions in House FFig. 13

Steve Tinney (1999) has recently analysed the curricular setting of Sumerian literature. He sees two bodies of school texts: a group of four very elementary hymns which he calls the Tetrad (Table 4), and ten more advanced compositions which he labels the Decad (Table 5). The Tetrad has almost no presence in House F, but as expected (Veldhuis 1997: 67; Tinney 1999: 162) the few witnesses we do have are quite clearly written on tablets belonging to the typology of the elementary curriculum (Table 1). All members of the Decad, on the other hand, are very well attested, with an average of twenty sources each in House F.

Table 4 - The Tetrad in House F[22][22] Numerical data based on Tinney (1999: 171–172).[23][23] Two Type II/1 tablets, one with Syllable Alphabet B;...[24][24] One Type IV tablet, one of unknown format.Table 4
Table 5 - The Decad in House F[25][25] Numerical data based on ETCSL database.Table 5

Strikingly, Table 5 shows that the House F tablets account for between a fifth and a half of the total number of Nippur sources for each of the Decad members. The majority of the other Sumerian literary tablets from Nippur were excavated by Hilprecht’s expedition from Philadelphia in the late nineteenth century, and very little reliable archaeological information about them survives. The data presented here, however, along with other evidence from House F, lead to the hypothesis that most of the Sumerian literary tablets may have come from three or four small, densely packed schools like House F. The rest may have been scattered more sparsely through other dwellings, like the neighbours of House F in Area TA. We can also see how heavily Nippur and House F have contributed to our overall picture of Sumerian literature, and potentially skewed our understanding of what is normative within the corpus: over a quarter of all Decad tablets are from House F, and all but a fifth of them are from Nippur more generally. The much more varied evidence of the Tetrad (Table 4), though, shows that Nippur is not necessarily simply a magnified reflection of the rest of the Sumerian literary world.


The Decad are not the only well attested literary compositions in House F: a further fourteen have over ten exemplars and/or account for a significant proportion of known sources (Table 6). As a group, their number of attested sources is not significantly different from the Decad (Fig. 14). I have called this group the House F Fourteen.

Table 6 - The House F FourteenTable 6
Fig. 14 - Sources for the Decad and the Fourteen in House FFig. 14
Table 7 - House F literary compositions in Old Babylonian literary catalogues[26][26] N2 (ETCSL 0.2.01) from Nippur; L (0.2.02) from Nippur?;...[27][27] D01–10 = Decad; F01–14 = House F Fourteen.[28][28] This entry, ud re-a ud sud-ta re?-a, could be the incipit...[29][29] This incipit, dumu e2-dub-ba-a, could belong to any...Table 7
Table 8 - Other Sumerian literary compositions in House F[30][30] 1 tablet with Nanshe Hymn A.[31][31] The incipit iri na-nam, which occurs in all three catalogues,...[32][32] The incipit of the composition itself is damaged.[33][33] One tablet also contains an unidentified hymn.[34][34] On the same tablet as Ishme-Dagan Hymn G.[35][35] 1 tablet with Enlil and Ninlil.[36][36] The incipit iri na-nam, which occurs in all three catalogues,...Table 8

Like the Decad (Tinney 1999: 168–169), the Fourteen are listed together on some Old Babylonian catalogues of Sumerian literature (Table 7). This strongly suggests that House F, and perhaps also in others in Nippur and Ur, they held a similar curricular status to the members of the Decad. This curricular status was not as strong or as pervasive as the Decad’s though, even in Nippur. For instance, in Catalogue N2 from Nippur there is a six-composition gap between the Decad and the House F Fourteen, while the Deeds and Exploits of Ninurta (F 08) is not listed at all. [37][37] Neither is The Return of Ninurta to Nippur (Table ... Apart from that, there is complete agreement between Catalogues N2 and L in the order of nine of the Fourteen, though other compositions are scattered among them. The only non-Nippur catalogue with strong evidence for the Fourteen is U2 from Ur, but it clearly reflects a very different curricular order, or some other ordering principle entirely. This is hardly surprising, given how very Nippur-dominated the sources for these compositions are (Table 5, Table 6). No catalogue has yet been identified in House F itself.


What of the rest of House F’s literary contents? Table 8 lists all the remaining compositions identified so far, sorted by their ETCSL catalogue number, apart from the literary letters and related compositions, which are treated separately below. [38][38] There are also over forty tablets bearing still unidentified... Most have only one or two sources, but another cluster of eight compositions emerges (shown in bold) with 6–10 exemplars each and a presence in the three ancient catalogues N2, L, S1, and U2. A further fourteen, with just 1–4 exemplars, are also listed in the same catalogues. (Indeed only nine of the forty-odd House F compositions we have considered so far are not known to have been catalogued in ancient times.) This suggests that the Decad and Fourteen were not the only curricular groupings in the House F but rather that there were clusters of compositions that were regularly taught together. We have already seen that Lipit-Eshtar Hymn B, one of the two Tetrad members attested in the house, shares a tablet with the apparently non-curricular Lipit-Eshtar Hymn D (Table 4). Other pairs of compositions on the same tablet are Enlil and Ninlil with Nanshe Hymn A (perhaps because they share the same incipit); Ishme-Dagan Hymn F with Ishme-Dagan Hymn G; and Ishme-Dagan Hymn A with an as yet unidentified composition.


The fit between the catalogues and the House F corpus is not perfect: many House F compositions are not listed in the catalogues (Table 8), while for instance Gilgamesh and Aga (N2 12, U2 12: ETCSL, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta (N2 48, L 24, U2 40:, Ishbi-Erra Hymn E (N2 15, U2 2:, the Temple Hymns (N2 49, L 31, U2 21: 4.80.1), and the Home of the Fish (N2 16, L 48, S1 R5: 5.9.1) are (hitherto) unattested in House F.


The structure of the Letter Collections (Ali 1964) is strongly reflected in the House F finds (Table 9). Letter Collection A, which Ali constructed on the basis of a House F tablet containing all three of its component letters A 01–A 03 was clearly a local reality but may not have had a life outside this particular school. Collection B, comprising 17 letters and three other short compositions, is more interesting for us, as Ali’s primary source was a single tablet from elsewhere in Nippur containing the whole sequence of twenty, with half a dozen others from Nippur and Ur bearing sub-sequences of letters. These show that the collection was rather fluid, and that 3.1.05, 3.3.13, and 5.7.3—marked (B) in Tables 9 and 10—were all considered to belong to the collection at different times and by various people. Only three of the House F letters are not from Collection A or B, namely a Letter from Ishbi-Erra to Ibbi-Suen (3.1.17), which I have shown elsewhere is heavily scholasticised (Robson 2002), the Letter from Iter-pisha to a Deity (3.2.08) and the Letter from Nabi-Enlil to a king (3.3.32), written on the same tablet as B 10. All the other House F sources are single-letter tablets. The only letters missing from House F are B 03–B 05 (from Iddin-Dagan to Suen-illat, from Nanna-kiang to Lipit-Eshtar, and from Lipit-Eshtar to Nanna-kiang) and B 12 (Public Announcement of the Loss of a Document).

Table 9 - Literary letters, and related compositions, in House F[39][39] Cavigneaux (1996: no. 12); ETCSL 0.2.17.[40][40] On the same tablet as extracts from the lexical list...Table 9
Table 10 - Sumerian literary tablets in other TA houses[41][41] Levels 11 and 12 date to before the school was active...Table 10

An OB catalogue of some thirty literary letters and related compositions, found in the Uruk Scherbenloch, lists many of the compositions from the second half of Collection B, albeit in a different order to the Nippur collective tablets. It omits B 12 (as in House F) but includes items, namely, the Letter to the Generals and the Dedication of an Axe to Nergal, which are in House F and on the periphery of Collection B. The degree of variation within this part of the curriculum, between schools and between cities, seems to be similar to the disparities in the Fourteen-like compositions chosen for inclusion in catalogues and curricula. However, for whatever reason, the letters are attested in smaller numbers in House F, with an average of fewer than 2 sources each. However, as only two known sources come from the Iraq Museum, further fragments may yet come to light there.


Four of House F’s neighbours left identifiable literary tablets behind, all in single exemplars (Fig. 2; Table 10). Their range is in general very similar to those from House F itself—and again there is no sign of the Tetrad.

Sumerian and Akkadian in House F and Area TA


It should be obvious from the preceding discussion that the House F curriculum was substantially in Sumerian: only around twenty exemplars of bilingual elementary compositions have so far been identified (1 Proto-Kagal, 4 Proto-Aa, and the 16 copies of Proto-Diri; see Table 3), and just one piece of Akkadian literature: a fragment of OB Gilgamesh (Cavigneaux and Renger 2000). [42][42] As mentioned above, the eighteen Akkadian letters discovered... The established understanding of this situation is that the Old Babylonian scribal schools were deliberately traditionalist, continuing to promulgate Sumerian while most administrative, business, and legal documents were already written in Akkadian (e.g., Pearce 1995: 2270). Indeed an element of traditionalism is displayed in the fact that, even outside the Tetrad, Decad, and Fourteen (which as curricular groupings we might expect to be conservative), the royal praise poetry in House F is all to Ishme-Dagan (1953–35), who had ruled some two centuries earlier. [43][43] Compare the relatively up-to-date school at No. 7,... However, although the school may have promoted old-fashioned literary models of kingship, the linguistic medium in which they were couched was not necessarily redundant too. Some thirty or so household documents written after Hammurabi’s conquest of Nippur in 1762 survive from House F and its neighbours in Area TA. [44][44] Stone 1987: texts 12–15, 22–23, 25–29, 31–32, 34, 38,... Over two thirds of them were written in Sumerian (Fig. 15), [45][45] I have used a simplistic method to assign languages... and continued to be written in Sumerian until the area was abandoned after 1721 (Fig. 16). As House F presumably trained scribes who lived locally this should hardly be surprising.

Fig. 15 - Household distribution of dated tablets in TA (after 1762)Fig. 15
Fig. 16 - Chronological distribution of dated tablets in TA (after 1762)Fig. 16



House F is a remarkable test case for our more general hypotheses and intuitions about Old Babylonian scribal education, which have necessarily been derived for the most part from decontextualised textual evidence. It has the potential not only to particularise but also to individualise and humanise our understanding of the scribes’ physical and mental world. Although my ongoing study is by no means complete, there are already some important initial conclusions to be drawn.


First, its physical environment is much smaller and more domestic than the Sumerian school literature would have us believe; there is no room in the tiny courtyard, less than 10 m2, for all the teachers and pupils described in the famous “Schooldays” story (Kramer 1949). There must have a significant mismatch between the idealised image of scribalism portrayed in the Sumerian literature taught in House F and the experiences of the students who were learning it.


Second, the presence of facilities for recycling used tablets explains why large scholastic corpora turn up only in exceptional circumstances (cf. Civil 1979: 7), such as sudden destruction of the school [46][46] For instance, No. 7 Quiet Street in Ur (Charpin 1986:... or deliberate re-use of the tablets in the fabric of the building as happened in House F. [47][47] And, for instance, in No. 1 Broad Street in Ur (Charpin... The different scholastic functions of the elementary tablets are reflected both in their physical layouts (Types I–IV, P) but also in their patterns of usage.


Third, we can closely outline the scribal curriculum in House F, which must have been broadly shared by the other Nippur school houses, perhaps three or four of which have been excavated. House F had its own particular additions and omissions though: tu-ta-ti, for instance, played no part in the sequence of elementary instruction, and very little mathematics was taught beyond the basic number facts (Robson 2002). Sumerian literature was practically the sole subject of post-elementary education in House F. While the Tetrad was not favoured, the Decad played a key role, as did other curricular groupings as attested by the House F Fourteen. Comparison with the Nippur literary catalogues, however, shows that there was by no means a standard curriculum across the city, but rather a common fund of shared compositions upon which individual teachers drew according to personal taste or pedagogical preference. The House F teacher made curricular choices that differentiated it from other Nippur schools. The predominance of Sumerian-language teaching is reflected in the preponderantly Sumerian-language documents drawn up for the households neighbouring House F.


Fourth, the curricular groupings within the educational corpus cut right across the generic boundaries the modern discipline has imposed upon Sumerian literature: the Decad and the Fourteen both mix myths and epics, royal praise poetry, and hymns to deities with the sort of compositions we have customarily described as “scribal training literature”. Even the literary letters are not rigidly demarcated from the rest of the corpus. Incantations, however, had no role in the House F curriculum.


Finally, the House F material has the potential to answer many more questions about Old Babylonian scribal education. For instance, when the dataset is complete it may be possible to estimate its “coefficient of completeness” (Civil 1980: 231): namely, how much survives of what might have been a “full set” of scribal exercises. That could lead in turn to an educated guess at the number of students trained in House F at any one time, and/or how much they wrote. We are still a long way, however, from determining the average duration of scribal education or the ages at which students typically started school or left it. It may be that these most basic of questions can never be answered, simply because such matters were so obvious they were never recorded (cf. Civil 1980: 227).


As long as the 3N-T tablets were used simply as a rich fund of sources for Old Babylonian literary and lexical compositions they inevitably distorted our image of Old Babylonian Sumerian. Disentangling House F from the rest of Nippur and, in the future, comparing it carefully with other sources of well provenanced contemporary corpora, such as the Uruk Scherbenloch, No. 7 Quiet Street in Ur, and the gala-ma?s’ house in Sippir Amn?num, will enable us to see a more nuanced picture of Old Babylonian scribal education and its literary by-products, in which chronological and regional variation, and even individual choice, can be more clearly distinguished.



This article, an expanded version of a paper presented at the International Conference of the Fifth Millennium for the Invention of Writing in Mesopotamia, held in Baghdad, 20–24 March 2001, is based on research funded by a British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellowship, 1997–2000. My trip to Baghdad in March 2001 was financed by All Souls College, Oxford. I extend sincere thanks to Erle Leichty, J. A. Brinkman, and Nawala al-Mutawalli for allowing me access to the 3N-T tablets held in the University Museum, Philadelphia, the Oriental Institute, Chicago, and the Iraq Museum, Baghdad. I am also very grateful to my colleagues in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Baghdad for generous hospitality during my visits. Many people have contributed to this work in various ways. My debt to the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature project is enormous: special thanks to Graham Cunningham, Jon Taylor, Gábor Zólyomi for being such thought-provoking, hard-working and easy-going colleagues. I am also particularly grateful to Paul Delnero, Irving Finkel, Andrew George, Piotr Michalowski, and Michel Tanret as well as the usual suspects—Jeremy Black, Steve Tinney, Luke Treadwell, and Niek Veldhuis—for their invaluable discussions and insights.


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Of course, it is not the first to do so: see Charpin (1986). More recently Wilcke (2000) has briefly surveyed the archaeological evidence for Mesopotamian schooling; and see now Tanret’s magnificent study of schooling in the gala-ma?s’ house in Sippir Amn?num (Tanret 2002).


According to the conventional middle chronology (e.g., Walker 1995); or during the 1650s following the ultra-short chronology proposed by Gasche et al. (1998).


Previous studies of House F and its neighbours were made in the original excavation report by McCown and Haines (1967: 64–66) and in Stone’s study of the architecture and domestic documentation (Stone 1987: 56–59), with important reviews by Charpin (1989–90), Postgate (1990) and Van Driel (1990).


TA was dug on the mound now known as Tablet Hill, due to the vast numbers of tablets found there in the University of Pennsylvania’s excavations, precisely in the hope and expectation of finding more of them (McCown and Haines 1967: viii; Zettler 1997: 149–50).


Stone’s figure of 35.58 m2 excludes courtyard 192 (Stone 1987: 58).


McCown and Haines (1967: 116, pls. 88, 95.5, 96.1, 96.7, 127.9, 130.5, 131.6, 134.9, 136.2, 142.10); Stone (1987: Appendix II: Object Catalog, 161–212, sv. 184, 189, 191, 192, 203, 205).


The stratigraphy of House F has been re-assessed twice: first by McCown and Haines between excavation and publication (as attested by the amendments made to the field notebooks) and then by Stone (1987). Neither analysis took into account the joins between school tablets. When these are factored in, it turns out that the field stratigraphy, in which all the school documents come from Level 10, works best for House F after all. Stone (1987: 133–144) details the equations between the three different stratigraphies. Stone (1987: 118) lists the latest datable tablets in each stratum of TA. In her Level XI (= field level 10) the youngest tablets are from 1739 and 1738.


The 733 tablets in Philadelphia include the 533 fragments published by Heimerdinger (1979), expected to be returned to the Iraq Musem in due course. The 347 pieces labelled in Figure 6 as “B/C casts” are fragments returned to Baghdad from Chicago, plaster casts of which were retained in the Oriental Institute.


For this reason I have not used rigorous statistical procedures to support the statements made here as such methods would be unwarranted on an unchecked dataset. Similarly I have not listed tablet numbers or places of publication. The final publication will include a full database and copies and/or digital photos of all the 3N-T tablets from TA.


E.g., Pearce (1995: 2270). Volk (2000: 3) has convincingly shown, however, that e2-dub-ba-a is better understood as “the house that distributes (= ba) tablets” or perhaps “house in which tablets are distributed”. They are certainly distributed liberally all over House F!


Cf. No. 1, Broad Street in Ur, where a large number of school tablets had been used as fill but, as they were jumbled up with disparate lots of other tablets, may not have been written in the house itself (Charpin 1986; 481–482).


The thickness of the lines between rooms and floors is proportional to the number of joins.


E.g., Dekiere 1994; Janssen 1991, 1992, 1996; Janssen et al. 1994; Tanret and Van Lerberghe 1993.


Eighteen fragments of Akkadian letters from Level 10 of House F could yield at least the name of House F’s occupant(s), but it is not yet clear whether these are genuine letters or scribal school exercises (Charpin 1990: 4–5). Tablets from a later occupational phase of House F, after its abandonment and rehabitation, are discussed by Stone (1987: 57–59). There is no reason to suppose that the later residents of the house were the same as had lived there when it was a school.


Tinney (1999: 160) has recently elaborated on this typology; for our purposes, however, the simple four-fold division is sufficient.


Some or all of these tablet formats were used outside Nippur too, but not necessarily with the same functions. In Ur, for instance, Type II tablets are virtually unknown, while Type IV tablets were used for mathematical rough work as well as for very short literary extracts (Gadd and Kramer 1966; Robson 1999: 245–272).


The typology of Type IV tablets was further elaborated by Gordon (1959: 7–8).


He has also found a convincing curricular sequence in the Type II tablets from the Scherbenloch in OB Uruk (Veldhuis 1997–98: 361).


See Veldhuis (2000) for the join between SP 2 and SP 6.


Of all types, not only Type II. The numbers in the column are not commensurate because of the co-occurrence of different compositions on the Type II tablets.


This is also the typology followed by the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (Black et al. 1998– ), with the addition of a section for Sumerian proverbs—which, as shown above, constituted the final component of the elementary curriculum. All literary compositions and ancient catalogues are cited according to the ETCSL titles and catalogue numbering here.


Numerical data based on Tinney (1999: 171–172).


Two Type II/1 tablets, one with Syllable Alphabet B; one collective tablet with Lipit-Eshtar Hymn D (ETCSL


One Type IV tablet, one of unknown format.


Numerical data based on ETCSL database.


N2 (ETCSL 0.2.01) from Nippur; L (0.2.02) from Nippur?; S1 (0.2.18) from Sippir; U1 (0.2.03), U2 (0.2.04) from Ur; B4 (0.2.11), Y2 (0.2.12) unprovenanced. R = reverse.


D01–10 = Decad; F01–14 = House F Fourteen.


This entry, ud re-a ud sud-ta re?-a, could be the incipit of either Gilgamesh, Enkidu and the Nether World or the Instructions of Shurrupag.


This incipit, dumu e2-dub-ba-a, could belong to any one of Eduba A, Eduba C, Eduba F (ETCSL 5.1.a, unpublished), Eduba Dialogue 1, or Eduba Dialogue 3 (ETCSL 5.4.3).


1 tablet with Nanshe Hymn A.


The incipit iri na-nam, which occurs in all three catalogues, also opens Nanshe Hymn A (ETCSL 4.14.1).


The incipit of the composition itself is damaged.


One tablet also contains an unidentified hymn.


On the same tablet as Ishme-Dagan Hymn G.


1 tablet with Enlil and Ninlil.


The incipit iri na-nam, which occurs in all three catalogues, also opens Enlil and Ninlil (ETCSL 1.2.1).


Neither is The Return of Ninurta to Nippur (Table 8).


There are also over forty tablets bearing still unidentified literary compositions.


Cavigneaux (1996: no. 12); ETCSL 0.2.17.


On the same tablet as extracts from the lexical list Nigga.


Levels 11 and 12 date to before the school was active in House F; level 10 is approximately contemporary with it; levels 8 and 9 are post-school.


As mentioned above, the eighteen Akkadian letters discovered in the house may also be scholastic compositions.


Compare the relatively up-to-date school at No. 7, Quiet Street in Ur, destroyed like House F in about 1740 but which had probably not been used as a school for some time, in which Rim-Sin (1822–1763) was the main subject of royal praise poetry found there (Charpin 1986: 429–431, 433).


Stone 1987: texts 12–15, 22–23, 25–29, 31–32, 34, 38, 42–47, 49–50, 54, 56–57, 59–61.


I have used a simplistic method to assign languages to documents: those with any Akkadian at all (excluding personal names) are designated as Akkadian, and those without as Sumerian. As the issue here is literacy not orality I have not been concerned to determine what the language of speech in Area TA was.


For instance, No. 7 Quiet Street in Ur (Charpin 1986: 433).


And, for instance, in No. 1 Broad Street in Ur (Charpin 1986: 481–2).



La maison F dans la Nippur du XVIIIe siècle a livré plus de 1 400 tablettes dans un contexte archéologique précis. Elle fournit donc une occasion unique de vérifier nos théories relatives à la nature de la formation des scribes et au rôle de la littérature sumérienne à l’époque paléo-babylonienne. On constate que la sagesse, reposant avant tout sur la littérature de l’eduba relative à l’école, est absente, tandis que les hypothèses récentes formulées par Veldhuis et Tinney sur l’enseignement élémentaire et celui de la littérature sont confirmées et élargies. Il apparaît qu’il n’y avait pas un curriculum monolithique à Nippur mais plutôt un répertoire de compositions et un petit nombre de genres de tablettes standardisées qui étaient considérés comme formant un matériel pédagogique approprié, que les maîtres pouvaient utiliser quand ils le jugeaient opportun. En outre, le simple volume de tablettes de la maison F en particulier et de Nippur en général a presque certainement déformé fortement notre image de l’éducation scribale paléo-babylonienne en leur faveur, au détriment d’autre sites moins intensivement fouillés.


House F from eighteenth-century Nippur has yielded over 1, 400 archaeologically contextualised tablets. It thus offers a unique opportunity to test our assumptions about the nature of scribal education and the role of Sumerian literature in the Old Babylonian period. The received wisdom, based predominantly on the eduba literature about school, is shown to be wanting, while more recent hypotheses put forward by Veldhuis and Tinney on the elementary and literary curricula are upheld and developed. It appears that there was no monolithic Nippur curriculum but rather a repertoire of compositions and a small range of standard tablet formats which were considered appropriate teaching material, both of which scribal teachers could draw on as they saw fit. Further, the sheer volume of tablets from House F in particular and Nippur in general has almost certainly skewed our picture of Old Babylonian scribal education heavily in their favour compared to other less intensively excavated sites.

Plan de l'article

  1. Introduction
  2. The archaeology of House F
  3. Elementary education in House F
  4. Sumerian literature in House F
  5. Sumerian and Akkadian in House F and Area TA
  6. Conclusions
  7. Acknowledgements

Pour citer cet article

Robson Eleanor, « The tablet House: a scribal school in old Babylonian Nippur », Revue d'assyriologie et d'archéologie orientale, 1/2001 (Vol. 93), p. 39-66.

DOI : 10.3917/assy.093.0039

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