Saturday, October 19, 2013

Writing and Scribes in Ancient Babylon

As far as is presently known, writing began in Sumer, in ancient Mesopotamia, around 3000BC. Evolving from pictography, cuneiform (wedge-shaped) made use of the fluted end of a reed to form characters with sharp jabs and tails that looked a lot like nails. The stylus was pressed into the soft clay of cushion shaped tablets and then left out to dry. Documents requiring permanency were baked in an oven.

The most important man in ancient Mesopotamia was the scribe.

Education was generally a privilege restricted to the sons of the wealthy, who could afford to maintain an unproductive child for a long period. Pictured at the top is the school for scribes known as the tablet house. Young boys began their training as early as 5 to 7 years of age. I can't imagine sitting on those hard seats all day every day. The little dishes you see on the floor were for mixing clay with water to make new tablets.

In a discovered tablet from Ur a young pupil complained of having only six days of freedom in a month. Their long days were spent copying out and memorizing lists of names, technical terms, and legal phrases plus grammar and mathematics. Corporal punishment was meted out liberally and, needless to say, rebellion among the students was frequent. A scribe's education lasted well into young adulthood. Some poor boys did not have a real head for it as evidenced in this excerpt from a 'school days' text.

"What have you done, what good came of your sitting here? You are already a ripe man and close to being aged! Like an old ass you are not teachable any more. Like withered grain you have passed the season. How long will you play around? But, it is still not too late! If you study night and day and work all the time modestly and without arrogance, if you listen to your colleagues and teachers, you still can become a scribe!"
(from City Invincible by C.H. Kraeling and R.M. Adams, Chicago)

Probably the most famous of all cuneiform texts is the Code of Hammurabi. Inscribed on diorite rock, the stele is in the shape of a huge index finger. The original is currently on display in The Louvre. This Babylonian law code dates back to about 1722BC and is the longest surviving cuneiform text from the Old Babylonian period. The so-called 'fingernail' at the top of the stele shows King Hammurabi standing before Shamash, god of law and justice.

Here is a close-up of the stele. Thanks to the hard rock on which the code was carved it has survived extremely well don't you think?

In the preface to his law code, King Hammurabi says,
"Anu and Bel called by name me, Hammurabi, exalted prince, who feared God, to bring about the rule of righteousness in the land, to destroy the wicked and evil-doers so that the strong should not harm the weak; so that I should rule all of the black-headed people like Shamash and enlighten the land, to further the well-being of mankind."

Four of the laws found on the stele are:

"If any one break a hole into a house (break in to steal) he shall be put to death before that hole and be buried."
"If a 'sister of a god' open a tavern, or enter a tavern to drink, then shall this woman be burned to death."
"If a man's wife be surprised (in flagrento dilecto) with another man, both shall be tied and thrown into the water, but the husband may pardon his wife and the king his slaves."
"If a son strike his father, his hands shall be hewn off."

Pretty serious stuff as is Hammurabi's final demand at the conclusion of the 282 laws that all future kings pay attention. An enormous litany of curses are rained upon any king who doesn't observe his laws exactly or puts his own image on the monument or defaces it in any way. Hammurabi's last words on the stele are,
"May Bel curse him with the potent curses of his mouth that cannot be altered, and may they come upon him forthwith."

Guess it's no wonder the monument has survived. Yikes.


  1. Hi Linnea. Is this related to the time period of your novel? I've written about this for World History textbooks a couple of times. The education of scribes really was rigorous.

    1. Yes, it sure was. Poor kids. My time period isn't that far back. My novel is set in neo-Babylonia during the latter part of the reign of Nabonidus just prior to and after the invasion by the Medes and Persians.

    2. Fascinating time period. Is it your WIP or a published work?

    3. It sure is. No, sadly, not a published work just my WIP. It SHOULD be published by now but I lost all my research material and my manuscript in a house fire that left us with nothing but the clothes on our backs. Took me a while to get over being depressed and start writing again.

  2. Oh, Linnea, how awful. No wonder it took you a while to start over. With a fire, you lose not just the work but so many sentimental things and memories. I know the writer Maxine Hong Kingston went through something similar, losing a manuscript in a fire.

    1. It took far longer to recover than I expected. And you're right. I've never been much attached to my possessions but I found that it was the memories those things gave me that made it so hard. Our insurance company was great and we replaced everything we lost yet I felt like I was living someone else's life because nothing around me 'belonged'. I didn't have the cool antique hi-fi I'd rescued and restored. I didn't have the paintings and beautiful lamps my husband gave me when we were first married etc. My children had grown up with those things being fixtures in their lives and they felt the loss very keenly too.

  3. Hey
    Next week I'm going to write a long paper on Babylon and its mathematics and why they were so interested in it and solving quadratic problems and I'm going to discuss if math on that levet was really necessary or not. If i get any troubles or get stuck can I get help from you?
    Cause I have to focus on the society by looking and analyzing the Hammurabi Codes and on the math by looking and analyzing clay tablets. This paper will effect my GPA alot so it has to be good and I can see you have a grand knowledge about it.

    1. Well, Rose, I've done a lot of research on Babylon but I'm not sure that I can be of much help in the math department :) Ask away and we'll see how it goes.

    2. Hi again!
      I have analyzed several clay tablets about quadratic equations so I'm all good in that department. The problem is I can't really understand what they would use these quadratic equations for. Was is because of needs in the society or was it simply math so they could show off with their knowledge?

      Another question is I have gotten confused about Babylon and Babylonia. Has Babylon always exist or did it come out of nowhere when Hammurabi came to rule it? And was it here Babylonia happened? When was Babylon established and when was Babylonien established? You can probably hear how confused I am....

      P.S sorry for the late reply, I didn't get a mail about you having replied :)

    3. By the way sorry for mistakes in any way, english isn't my first language :)

    4. Although the Babylonians did love problem solving for its own sake they used quadratic equations to determine, for example, the size of a field needed to grow an adequate crop to feed their population. As for your question on Babylon and Babylonia I've given it to you in a new blog post as it was too long to write here. You can find it at

  4. Thank you very much for your help, I know, thanks to you, understand it! :)

    Just one question one more, how is it possible that you know so much about Babylon?

    I need to know so I can note you on my paper wether you are a reliable source or not so my teachers don't pick me down for it :)

    1. Strictly research. My sources are from the following:
      'Everyday Life in Babylon and Assyria" by Georges Contenau,
      'Mesopotamia: The Invention of the City" by Gwendolyn Leick,
      'Everyday Life in Ancient Mesopotamia' by Jean Bottero
      and 'Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia' by Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat

  5. What are your thoughts on all these people who are asserting that the men who translated cuneiform are con-artists? Not long ago, someone told me that it was all "chicken scratch" that no one today could ever understand. The same person gave the example that no locals in Iraq knew of the story of Gilgamesh.

    Small-mindedness... or, does he have a point?


    1. I guess I'd ask them what grounds they have for making the accusation and then decide if they had sufficient evidence.

      That said, attempts had been made for many years to decipher cuneiform texts, without much success. It wasn't until 1835, when Henry Rawlinson found the Behistun Inscription authored by Darius the Great, that progress was made. Like the Rosetta Stone the Behistun Inscription contained the same text written in three different languages - Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian.

      Old Persian symbols were correctly identified by 1847. By 1857 the four men who were able to read the script - Henry Rawlinson, Edward Hincks, Julius Oppert and William Henry Fox - met to compare their work. As their independent translations closely matched it was determined that the ancient Babylonian language had been discovered.

      As for 'locals' in Iraq being unaware of the Epic of Gilgamesh I guess I'd ask how large a sample of the population was taken and were they educated or uneducated. In 1853 a copy of the epic tale was discovered in Nineveh in the library of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria. As recently as 2011, 20 new lines from the epic were purchased by The Sulaymaniyah Museum in Iraq from artefact smugglers.