Whenever we study or discuss any ancient civilization we often forgot to consider the studying schooling system. There was a few of advanced civilization in the past who had a great writing system in place to deal with day to day activities.
But often we didn’t find much evidence about the schooling or how education was served at that time. Here we will explore the ancient Sumerian clays tablets which is exceptional evidence of ancient Mesopotamia’s schooling system. This clay tablet was written in the Cuneiform scripting language.
What is Cuneiform?
Cuneiform, or Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, was one of the earliest systems of writing, invented by Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means “wedge-shaped
The cuneiform tablets served various purposes in ancient Mesopotamia. Several kinds of tablets have been discovered pertaining to administrative records like the record of visa process in ancient Mesopotamia, receipt of and payment for goods and services–accounting records like the record of the oldest customer complaint, etc.
Schooling System in Ancient Mesopotamia
The schooling system was called Edubba in ancient Mesopotamia. The literal meaning is the learning academics of Sumer for the young, gifted, talented, smart, and noble children and men of all ages.
Edubba is the Sumerian for “scribal school in ancient Mesopotamia during the late third or early second millennium BCE. Most of the information known about edubbas comes from cuneiform texts dating to the Old Babylonian period (2000-1600 BCE).
School Learning Tablet
Many tablets that were discovered during excavation belong to school exercise tablets, used by scribes learning the cuneiform writing system. These latter tablets were originally unfired, as they were meant to be erased and reused.
However, temple accounting records, on the other hand, were fired and stored for future reference.
The round tablets are from 7 cm. to 8 ½ cm. in diameter. All of the school exercise tablets in this collection are round. Scribes distinguished these tablets from an official record, which were almost always square or rectangular. The coloration of the clay materials varies from light to dark.
Many of the tablets are inscribed on both front and back. The styles of inscriptions vary with the content or function of the tablet. A few tablets have relief impressions of figures of deities and royal persons made by cylinder seals. Seals were often affixed to transactions that required authorization, for example on records, envelopes called Bulla and storerooms.
Types of Schooling Tablet
A lot of student learning was done by writing out cuneiform compositions on clay tablets. A large number of tablets preserving scribal student’s exercises (called “exercise tablets”) have been found at sites throughout the Near East. These come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the level of the student and on how advanced the assignment was.
These multi-column tablets usually containing several hundred lines of a composition written out by a student in two or more columns. These tablets are often large enough to accommodate an entire composition and sometimes even contain parts of multiple compositions. A poem that describes the ancient flood, “Epic of Gilgamesh” was written in Type I tablets.
Type II tablets are formatted with two or more columns on the obverse (the front of the tablet), and multiple columns of a different text on the reverse (the back of the tablet).
The left-hand column of the obverse contains a passage or “extract” from a school text (usually about 8-15 lines) written in a neat hand, presumably by the teacher.
The right-hand column contains a copy of the passage, usually more sloppily written and presumably written by the student. Perhaps the world’s first library catalog was created in Type II tablets.
Known as extract tablets or imgidas (Sumerian for “long tablet”), are single-column tablets containing extracts (usually around 40-60 lines) from longer compositions, often belonging to the advanced stages of scribal education. The law codes of Ur Nammu were written in Type III tablets that were found in the Nippur library.
Type IV tablets, also known as “lentils,” are circular tablets containing one or a few lines of a composition written out once by the teacher and then a second time by the student.
The student’s copy appears either underneath the teacher’s inscription (typical of Nippur tablets) or on the reverse (more typical of other sites).
This tablet is usually a four- or six-sided prism, with one to four columns per side and a hollow central axis through which a stick could be inserted. It usually contains an entire composition or a collection of model contracts. Prisms are rarer than Type I Tablets and are written by more or less advanced students.
School Exercise Tablets – Type IV
The student tablets are recognizable by their roundness, deliberately made so by scribes in order not to confuse them with other tablets, which were almost always square or rectangular. All student tablets were unfired as the intention was to reuse the same tablet.
The teacher in the scribal school (edubba) typically inscribed the lesson, three words or a short sentence, on one side of the tablet, and the student copied and recopied it onto the other side until memorized correctly.
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Student Exercise Tablet 20th–16th B.C.
This circular clay tablet was used to help scribes learn to write the Sumerian and Akkadian languages using the triangle like the cuneiform script.
To learn a word or sign, the teacher would write the form on the obverse, and the student would then repeat the exercise on the reverse.
Such elementary exercises were often completed on tablets that were small and round, easily fitting into the palm of a hand.
On this tablet, the name of the deity Urash was copied six times. Two signs were used to write this name: the first star-like sign on the left is a sign that was used to indicate the name of a divine being.
The second sign could be used to write the syllable ib or ip; here it stands for Urash, the name of a deity.
Cuneiform signs were used to render both words and sounds, and a single sign could signify multiple words and/or sounds. The study of cuneiform writing, therefore, required the mastery of several hundred signs and their different meanings.
I must say that the ancient Sumerians had a great schooling culture to progress the young Sumerians. Like a current schooling system, they also had a level based practice which students had to follow to reach to next level in the school by showing the progress in the school.
Respect for those archeologists and translators who discovered and translate these ancient clay tablets by that we are able to learn so much about ancient culture.
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