Department Seminar – “ABCs and BU-BA-BIs: Learning to Write in Early Mesopotamia” (Dr. Paul Delnero, Johns Hopkins University)

From the time when writing was invented in Mesopotamia until over 3000 years later when the last wedge was pressed into clay, scribes were trained to read and write cuneiform. To master this extremely complex, non-alphabetic writing system consisting of hundreds of signs with multiple pronunciations and meanings, students copied thematic word lists, proverb collections, humorous dialogues, hymns, mythological narratives, and many other types of texts, leaving behind thousands of discarded exercises from each stage of their training. While these exercises provide a wealth of insight into many aspects of Mesopotamian scribal education, including the content and sequence of the scribal curriculum, and how the excess of knowledge acquired during scribal training played a critical role in elite identity formation, very little attention has been paid to how they were used to teach scribes how to write. In this paper, the first group of elementary exercises taught to apprentice scribes will be presented to show how Mesopotamian scribal education was first and foremost practical, and intended from the very beginning to teach pupils the skills necessary to carry out their future professions as scribes.