Chapter 12

Naditums and Scribal Students

It’s a curious fact that many private houses in the Old Babylonian period, even ones that weren’t functioning as small schools, included the archives of the families who lived in them.1 During the Ur III period and earlier, cuneiform tablets were almost always found in institutional buildings, where they had been written and stored by scribes who worked for the relevant palace or temple. The average person in those earlier eras had little contact with, or even need for, the written word—cuneiform was used almost exclusively by the religious and political administrations.2 But, starting in the Isin-Larsa period, something very different was happening. Writing began to be useful, and to be used, by people throughout many levels of the society.3 This was part of the larger phenomenon that we have already seen for this era—the privatization of much of the economy and the loss of centralized control over some people’s lives on the part of the palace. Families of merchants from Ashur could trade in Anatolia without their activities being commissioned, or even overseen, by the king. Individuals (at least in some parts of Mesopotamia) could buy and sell land and houses. People could take one another to court. All these actions required some sort of record-keeping, so it became valuable to be able to read and write. And with all of this activity, people traveled more, and found more of a need to keep in touch with one another over long distances. For this, a written letter was much more reliable than an oral message. Again, writing filled a need that hadn’t really existed before for many people. The personal archives found in private homes often included letters and contracts relating to the family’s activities, and sometimes they also included scribal exercises—evidence that some member of the family went to school. As a result, many aspects of daily life are well understood in this era, particularly in the cities of Sippar and Nippur.

The City of Sippar

During the reign of Hammurabi, Sippar played an integral role in the kingdom. It was actually made up of two cities—Sippar-Yahrurum (the main city) and Sippar-Amnanum (the suburb)—6 kilometers (3.7 miles) apart from one another and just 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Babylon.4 The main city (which I will refer to as just Sippar) was home to the god of wisdom, Shamash, the sun god himself. Shamash’s temple, the Ebabbar (meaning the White Temple), would have been one of the biggest buildings in Mesopotamia, dominating the southwestern side of the rectangular city. The sacred temenos area around the temple of Shamash was immense—8.3 hectares (20.5 acres) in extent. It occupied about a tenth of the city.5 Sippar was surrounded by a high wall with a canal beyond it.

Sippar, like Ashur at around the same time, had a special trading relationship with a distant land. In their case it was with the city of Susa, to the east of Mesopotamia. The evidence for this trade isn’t anything like as vast or detailed as we saw with the Assyrian colony at Kanesh, but that is perhaps because the trading quarter at Susa hasn’t been found, or because it didn’t burn down and thereby preserve the documentation. Tablets found at Sippar mention traders who traveled directly to Susa, such as a man named Iddin-Amurru, who went to Susa for repayment of a loan that he’d obtained there.6 And, in turn, one group of tablets found in Susa is full of the Akkadian names of expatriate Sipparians, but they mention almost no local people with Elamite names.7 The oaths on these contracts are made in the names of Shamash, the god of their Akkadian home city, and Inshushinak, the local god of Susa. Clearly Susa was under local rule, but was home to a community of men and women from Sippar, who had probably settled there to benefit from trade. The Sipparians, not the people of Susa, seem to have been in control of this trade.

Hammurabi himself devoted plenty of attention to embellishing Sippar and glorifying Shamash. In his fifteenth year, according to the name of that year, Hammurabi “made seven statues in copper for Shamash in the temple Ebabbar.”8 In his twenty-third year he laid the foundations of the city wall of Sippar. Construction on the city wall must have gone on for two years, ending in his twenty-fifth year when he boasted that it was done; Hammurabi had “rebuilt the destroyed great city wall of Sippar for (the gods) Shamash and Sherida.” The very next year, Shamash received a great throne in reddish gold from Hammurabi (as did the gods Adad and Sherida). After eighteen year-names that mostly commemorated military victories, Hammurabi was back in Sippar late in his reign, in his forty-third year, working again on the city wall. He “made the wall of Sippar, the eternal city of Shamash, out of great masses of earth.” This preoccupation with the city wall of Sippar is even seen in one of his royal inscriptions: “At that time, in order to increase (the amount of) food, I piled up a dike in the irrigation districts, built the wall of the gagum upon it, dug there the canal Aya-ḫegal and poured abundant water in it.”9

Naditums in Sippar

In this last inscription he wasn’t writing about the entire city wall; he was focused on one part it, “the wall of the gagum.” The gagum is a fascinating phenomenon, something unique to the Old Babylonian period. It was an integral part of the city of Sippar, a sector of the city near the Ebabbar temple. There were gagums in several cities in the kingdom of Babylon at the time, almost like the slightly earlier karums (trading quarters) of Assyrian merchants in Anatolia. Like the karums, they were places of great economic activity, with their own officials. The “house of the gagum” stood somewhere in this quarter of the city, housing its administration. We know from private documents that the people living and working in this sector, known as naditums, bought fields, orchards, and houses, leased land to tenants, and lent silver at interest. Their activity was essential to the economic prosperity of Sippar as a whole. The naditums were formally devoted to the god Shamash, but the wealth that they accumulated did not become the property of the temple; the naditums owned their own wealth, which they were able to pass down to their successors or transfer to their families. One might expect these naditums to have been powerful men, not unlike the merchants in the Old Assyrian trade network. But the naditums were all women.

Plenty of cuneiform tablets survive that attest to their activities, especially letters, contracts, and administrative texts. They show that the naditums had been born into rich and powerful families and they were not allowed to marry or to bring up biological children (though they could adopt). These women were sent to the gagum at a young age by their fathers or guardians to serve a religious purpose, namely, to pray to Shamash for the welfare of their families. In their correspondence with family members and others the women made pious statements and included prayers, reflecting their religious devotion to Shamash and his divine wife Aya. (Erishti-Aya, a naditum and princess of Mari, wrote in a letter to Zimri-Lim that she saw herself as “the praying emblem who prays constantly for her father’s life.”)10 The women spent their whole lives as members of the gagum, supported by wealth provided by their fathers and brothers. But they were not just pious religious functionaries. The naditums were also expert businesswomen who worked for the temple, for themselves, and for their families.

Unfortunately, the first excavations at Sippar, when most of the naditum documents were recovered, took place early in the history of archaeology, starting in the 1880s. They were led by Hormuzd Rassam, an Iraqi archaeologist working for the British Museum.11 This was the time of large scale, fast digging, when little attention was paid to the details in the ground; when a team of hundreds of local workmen “attacked all the points of the city,” in the words of an archaeologist at Sippar, and few records were kept of where they dug or what was found.12 It’s not surprising therefore that, although between 70,000 and 80,000 cuneiform tablets were recovered from the site,13 we have almost no idea where they were found. Many of them, in fact, were purchased at the time from local people who had dug them up, so even the archaeologists may not have known where they came from.

This means that we can learn much less about the workings of the gagum than would have been true if the tablets’ archaeological context had been recorded. Had those tablets been excavated today, it would be possible to know whether individual naditums kept their own records in their houses, or whether a collective archive was kept in the administrative building, and how that archive was organized. Fortunately, more recent excavations at Sippar, organized by the University of Baghdad since 1978, have recovered around 200 tablets and fragments from this same period, and many of them mention women, some of whom were clearly naditums and other religious functionaries (and others may well have been, even though they lack the title). These were all found in private houses, which shows that the naditums could store their records in their homes.14 A temple or administration building archive is still, of course, a possibility as a source of the earlier documents—no temple or public building was excavated in the recent campaigns.

We know from the ancient contracts that the houses owned by the naditums were mostly tiny—42 percent of them were smaller than 1 SAR, which was 36 square meters (387 square feet), and an additional 17.7 percent of them were smaller than 2 SAR or 72 square meters (774 square feet).15 A woman who inherited a “house” of one-third of a SAR, or 12 square meters (129 square feet)—and this was not an uncommon bequest—was presumably inheriting just a room of about 3 by 4 meters in a larger building. It would be fascinating to see how these houses were structured.

Previous generations of historians often thought of the naditums as ancient nuns and (based in part on the tiny houses they owned) envisioned them living in cells in a cloister, isolated from the rest of the city. But in some of the contracts, the naditums’ houses were described as being located on streets, next to neighboring houses owned by other people who were not naditums. Besides which, the naditums were homeowners, not tenants.

Some of houses owned by naditums even adjoined taverns, which in turn were also owned by naditums. This fact clashes with one of Hammurabi’s laws, which has often been cited to suggest that the naditums had to live such moral lives that they couldn’t even enter a bar (let alone own one) without being put to death. The law states: “If a naditum or an ugbabtum (another type of religious woman) who does not reside within the gagum should open (the door to?) a tavern or enter a tavern for some beer, they shall burn that woman.”16

As it turns out, naditums owned many taverns mentioned in the Sippar texts.17 The thing is that these owners were all naditums who lived in the gagum and were part of its administrative structure. Remember that Hammurabi’s law specifies that it was only naditums who did not live in the gagum who would be punished for opening or entering a tavern. Perhaps the law had nothing to do with imposing moral purity on naditums, but instead was designed to protect the naditums who were business owners and perhaps to maintain the gagum’s possible monopoly on tavern ownership.18

The Iraqi excavations at Sippar in the 1980s revealed a collection of houses that look as though they might be part of the gagum.19 They were northwest of the Shamash temple, lined up along narrow streets (see Fig. 12.1). The neighborhood dates to the same period as the naditum documents—the early to mid-second millennium BCE—and seems to have been planned, with streets that were carefully laid out and that ran parallel to one another. Along each street, completely filling the space between them, stood dense blocks of small houses, most of them with just two rooms, packed together, and often sharing thick walls. Many of the houses are of exactly the same plan. A door in the front wall of the house opened into the left-hand side of the tiny main room, which measured just three by two meters. A door on the right-hand side of the facing wall in this room led to an even smaller room at the back of the house, also three meters wide, but just about one meter deep. Given that the latter room always shared a back wall with a house on the next street, the back rooms probably had no windows. These structures are closer to the scale of cells than houses, much too small for a family, and yet they seem to have been lived in.20 Nothing like these houses is known from elsewhere in Mesopotamia—not only are they so small and regular, they do not even have burials under their floors.21


Fig. 12.1 Plan of an excavated neighborhood in Sippar, area V 108, showing a street with a row of very small two-room houses that might have belonged to naditums, mid-eighteenth century bce (based on Al-Rawi and Dalley 2000, iv, Fig. 4).

All this makes sense if they were gagum homes. A single naditum, living alone, might have found such a small house perhaps cramped, but not unlivable. The neighborhood would have been full of women, all of them devoted to the sun god. We know that many of the naditums also owned houses in Sippar in other neighborhoods outside the gagum; perhaps they didn’t live in their gagum rooms all the time and often enjoyed the more spacious quarters of their second homes. The naditums were buried in a cemetery, which also explains the lack of burials under the houses.

About fourteen tablets from the excavations in the 1980s clearly seem to have come from this neighborhood of tiny houses.22 Eight of them pertained to the activities of women, including three letters apparently written by or to women,23 a silver payment by a woman,24 a loan payment by a woman,25 two loans taken by women,26 and a note recording dates delivered to a woman.27 The contracts among these documents were witnessed almost entirely by women, and many of the female names were the ones typical of naditums. So, it’s tempting to see this neighborhood as part of the gagum.

And yet . . . six of the documents in this group of excavation numbers have nothing at all to do with women, including two that were categorically found there.28 One of these was found in the front room of one of the two-room houses that just cry out to be identified as the quarters of naditums.29 It records two men taking a loan of barley from another man, and every witness was a man. Not a naditum in sight. If this area was the gagum, and these small houses were home to naditums, why would they be keeping records like this?

Curiously, other documents found during the excavations in the 1980s and pertaining to naditums were found in another neighborhood altogether, one marked by spacious houses and much less urban planning.30 Here too, the naditums do not seem to have been separated from other people; they lived and worked with their brothers and other family members, their archives intermingled.31 It seems that both neighborhoods were within the gagum and that it was far from being a monastic institution of secluded women. Naditums lived among people (men and women) who were not naditums.32

Another recent realization is that the physical gagum—the houses and other properties belonging to the naditums—was overseen by an institution that was also known as the gagum. Just as the physical market or “karum” in Kanesh also had an administrative structure with the same name, so too did the gagum. The highest position in its administration was the “overseer of the naditums.” This official, in the time of the kings before Hammurabi, was generally a woman.33 Later, men took over the position. Men also, at all times, held all the other administrative positions in the gagum: the keeper of the gate of the gagum, the scribe of the naditums, the judge of the naditums of the gagum, the chief of the workforce of the gagum, the messenger of the gagum, and so on.34

The women living there were not independent of men, clearly. But they had more autonomy than most women in the society, and there is no indication that anyone, male or female, believed them to be incapable of assuming responsibilities and taking initiatives that were generally limited to men, nor that they would be incapable of doing them well. After being initiated as a naditum, a woman could and did assume various economic, religious, and legal responsibilities, just as unmarried priestesses had been doing for centuries in Mesopotamia. What was different in the Old Babylonian period was that entire communities of unmarried women lived together and filled these roles. A number of Mesopotamian cities at the time housed a community of naditums, many of them dedicated to the god Marduk, rather than Shamash, but the gagum at Sippar is the best known because of the many tablets found there.

At the height of Sippar’s prosperity, during the reign of Hammurabi, the naditums were responsible for at least a third of the buying, selling, and leasing of fields and houses in the city. Far from being secluded in a cloister, they interacted with the wider world, made loans, and got rich (that is to say, even richer than they already were, given that they started out with wealth). Having no biological children, they were not tied to the usual premodern woman’s cycle of pregnancy, birth, nursing, weaning, and then pregnancy again, and the accompanying demands of taking care of many small children. They come across in the records as women who took advantage of this freedom with a vengeance.35 The gagum may even have been involved in the long-distance trade with Susa, helping to fund and organize this lucrative business.36 Naditums appear in legal texts—contracts and court cases. They were quite prepared to take people to court if they had been wronged, and to assemble witnesses in support of their claims.

The life of a naditum was, however, constrained in many ways, in spite of her relative autonomy. Most importantly, a woman did not have a choice whether or not to become a naditum. That decision was made by her father before she even reached adolescence.

It’s a bit of a puzzle how the institution got started in the first place. Why would a rich father (naditums were almost all from wealthy and powerful families) choose one of his young daughters and send her off to a gagum to live there for the rest of her life? It wasn’t a cheap option; he had to provide her with a considerable dowry, equivalent to the inheritance he would provide for one of his sons. And, unlike an inheritance, the father had to provide it to her before he died. One naditum named Shat-Aya was given a vast amount of wealth as her dowry when she became a naditum. It included real estate (five fields, an orchard with a tower, a large house, a tavern, and several shops on the main street of Sippar), along with metals (4.5 kilograms or 10 pounds of silver and 9 kilograms or 20 pounds of copper), animals (oxen, cows, and sheep), household items, and twenty slaves.37 The reason for the decision to dedicate her to a life in the gagum must have been partly what the Mesopotamians of the time said it was—to have a family representative cultivate a close relationship with the sun god who would then watch out for them all. We should never underestimate how deeply the Mesopotamians believed in the power of their gods and how much they longed for ways to influence them. The naditum was a living, breathing version of the Early Dynastic statues set up in temples to pray for the life and health of the family of the man or woman they represented.

But a father’s decision to place his daughter in a gagum may have been pragmatic as well as pious. Elite women faced few options in terms of their marriage prospects. They rarely married beneath their rank or outside their perceived group. If an appropriate husband could not be found, a daughter could be devoted to a god and the family would not only have saved face; they would have benefited.38

Many naditums had a reputation for successfully managing and increasing their families’ wealth. After the death of a naditum, her dowry (along with any additional wealth she had managed to accrue through leasing fields, lending silver, or hiring out slaves) could revert to her brothers. This seemed to have been a good investment strategy. The dowry given to a non-naditum woman when she married, in contrast, left her father’s family and was controlled by her husband. She was still the owner of her dowry and it was passed on to her children, but it no longer contributed to the wealth of her father or brothers. The fact that many naditums came from families that sent several girls to the gagum, generation after generation, suggests that it was considered a wise decision, whether economically or religiously, or both.

Awat-Aya: Initiate Naditum

In any event, whatever the reason a girl was chosen, her dowry was put together and the day came for her to enter the gagum. This took place during a three-day festival, the “sebut shattim,” which was celebrated in honor of Shamash every December or January. As many as 300 women are known to have lived in the gagum at Sippar during the reign of Hammurabi,39 so perhaps quite a few girls participated in the initiation each year.

One girl who went through this was named Awat-Aya.40 The gagum kept an account of the expenses involved in her induction, and that record survives and gives us a sense of what the experience might have been like.41

The participants seem to have thought of the initiation as a type of wedding, but one in which a girl such as Awat-Aya was to spiritually marry the sun god. After all, she brought a dowry with her, and there was no human groom involved, just Shamash.

As in a normal wedding, the wealth didn’t flow just one way; the administrator of the gagum also provided a present for the girl’s father. In Awat-Aya’s case, her father had died before her induction as a naditum, so the gift was made from the gagum to her eldest brother, Mar-ersetim. The tablet lists what he was given: “3 . . . vessels, 2 fish, 1 . . . bowl of 1 sila capacity,” with their value helpfully added: they were equivalent to half a shekel of silver. This was all, says the text, “when the young girl entered the gagum.” Her brother also received “1 shekel of silver [and] a belt.”42 The administrator of the gagum provided a gift to the initiate Awat-Aya herself at this time, “a shekel of silver for two rings.” The list went on and concluded with a statement that the whole gift was worth “altogether 4 3/5 shekels, 25 grains of silver.” Tellingly, this gift is called a “biblum,” which was the term for a betrothal gift. Awat-Aya was engaged, but not to a human man.

Even the Sumerian equivalent of the Akkadian term “naditum” confirms this analogy. In Sumerian, she was called a “lukur” of Shamash, which was also the term for a man’s second wife. The god’s first wife was the goddess Aya. The initiate became, in a way, one of Shamash’s second wives. There was no vow of chastity involved; naditums couldn’t marry human men or raise biological children, but nothing has been found in writing that insists on their chastity. On the other hand, nothing has also been found to suggest that they engaged in prostitution, or in any kind of “sacred marriage” ritual with a man representing the god.

The three-day initiation event seems to have been a happy celebration, one that was enjoyed and remembered fondly by the girls who were being inducted. The “thread of Shamash” was placed on a girl’s arm; this distinguished her from her friends and relatives—it was clearly an honor to receive it.43 More remarkable yet, the inductees were brought into the presence of the gods themselves, probably at the very heart of the Ebabbar temple. No civilian would be allowed this privilege. The statues of Shamash and Aya were probably made of precious metals, wearing exquisite clothes, each placed high on a dais and seated on a throne. They must have shone in the lamp light in the holy sanctuary, which would have had little in the way of windows. One naditum remembered this moment fondly. She wrote to a friend that “When I saw you, I was delighted by your arrival . . . just as I was when I entered the gagum and got to see the face of my mistress (the goddess).”44

Some of the girls took on a new name at this point, one that was appropriate to their role as devotees of the sun god. Amat-Aya’s name was a popular one. It meant “servant girl of (the goddess) Aya.” More than a hundred naditums at Sippar, for example, are known to have been named Amat-Shamash (“servant girl of Shamash”). Erishti-Shamash was another popular choice (“request from Shamash”), and many other names honored Aya, the divine wife of Shamash.45

Over the course of the three days of the sebut shattim celebration, food was allocated and carefully listed on the tablet concerning Awat-Aya’s initiation. The meals included meat (such as from the “neck tendons of an ox” and “a shoulder of a sheep”), fish, and flour, and the lists include various vessels that must have held oil. On the third and last day there was “1/3 shekel for beer which the young girls drank.” Each time, the meticulous gagum scribe noted not only what food had been distributed but exactly how much it was all worth in silver.

On the second day, the initiates participated in the “memorial day of the naditums” when they seem to have gone to the cemetery to perform rites for the women who had come before them. Normally, family members performed such ancestral rites; for the new naditums, this memorial day provided them with the assurance that, even though they would never have biological children, their new family of religious women would be there for them throughout their lives and even after death.46

It’s unclear how the initiates spent their first years. Strikingly absent from the dowry we know about, that of Shat-Aya, was a house in the gagum itself, though she must have had a place to live there. No doubt most of the girls were, in a way, joining a branch of their family that was already established in the gagum. Many of them probably had an aunt who was already a naditum and with whom they could live until they acquired their own rooms or houses.

The girls apprenticed with the older naditums, who presumably helped them manage their dowry properties. Many, if not most, of the girls learned to read and write. Quite a few of their records don’t list a scribe because they were clearly written by a naditum herself and she didn’t need to hire a scribe. Indeed, some legal texts specifically mention a naditum who could write tablets. Other records do credit a scribe and that scribe was sometimes a woman.47

A woman named Humta-Adad, who lived in a house in Sippar that was excavated during the 1980s, may have been a teacher of female scribes. She wasn’t a naditum, but she was a priestess, called a qadishtum, devoted to the storm god Adad.48 Her house was on a corner, with the front door opening onto a broad street. The house was long and narrow, with three rooms in a row, one behind the next.49 The back room contained a jar full of cuneiform tablets, including many contracts relating to Humta-Adad’s business dealings and those of her brother. Her archive wasn’t restricted to contracts, however. Humta-Adad also had kept incantations, a hymn, and—tellingly—school exercise tablets.50 She may have taken on female pupils who came to her house to study.

Amat-Shamash: A Naditum in Need of Help

The naditums couldn’t obtain everything they needed in the gagum, and sometimes they had to appeal to their siblings and other family members for support and sometimes for food, in exchange for the prayers that they offered to the gods. A good example is seen in a letter that was found at the site of  Tell al-Rimah sent by one of the many women named Amat-Shamash. This Amat-Shamash, who lived in Sippar, was the sister of Iltani, the queen of a kingdom called Karana, to whom she was writing. She started the letter with a classic blessing used by naditums in their correspondence: “May my Lord (the sun god Shamash) and my Mistress (the goddess Aya) grant you eternal life for my sake!”51 She continued the letter with a story: Iltani’s husband, King Aqba-hammu, had visited Amat-Shamash in Sippar where she “esteemed him highly, as was fitting for my status as a naditum, and he too esteemed me especially highly.” The king, her brother-in-law, promised to have, in his own words, “anything you need sent to you in a fully laden ship.” In exchange he asked her to “Pray for me to your Lord.” This was what naditums did, after all—intercede with the sun god Shamash on behalf of their family members. A ship full of supplies was surely a reasonable exchange for that. So she had followed up and had written to king Aqba-hammu, upon which he sent her two servants—not exactly a boat full of supplies, but apparently a good substitute.52

To judge from this and other letters, from and to naditums, the prayers that they offered to the gods represented an important part of their duties. They prayed to Shamash for protection of the men in their families, and to Aya, his wife, for protection of the women. There seem to have been sacrifices in the morning and evening at which the naditums prayed; perhaps they were in attendance at the temple regularly for this purpose. Sometimes they even provided lambs for sacrifice.53

Ideally, their family members, like Aqba-hammu, appreciated these interventions with the gods and, in a way, paid the naditums for their services by providing them with gifts and food. But some family members were less forthcoming, and this could annoy a naditum. In Amat-Shamash’s letter, her tone changed as she turned to what she clearly saw as neglect by her sister. Amat-Shamash wanted Iltani to behave more like her husband Aqba-hammu. It turns out that Iltani had never asked Amat-Shamash to offer prayers for her, and (perhaps as a result) had sent Amat-Shamash no gifts. “You never have a jar of good oil sent to me,” Amat-Shamash complained, “anything at all.”

But be that as it may, she had a more pressing concern and she needed her sister’s help. She continued, “the slaves that my father gave me have grown old.” Her father had provided these slaves as part of her dowry, but that was now some time ago. She wrote that she had sent a half mina of silver to the king and she wanted him to send her “slaves who have recently been captured and are tough.” Iltani would need to intercede with the king on Amat-Shamash’s behalf in order to make this request. But Amat-Shamash wasn’t asking her sister to do this for nothing; she included with her letter some “first quality white wool for a wig and a basket of shrimps.”54

There were some things that the naditums could acquire easily; others were only possible with the help of family members. For Amat-Shamash, slaves seem to have fallen into the latter category. Her letter is not unlike any number of Old Babylonian letters written from one sibling to another; a woman needed something that was available in her sibling’s city, so she requested it and sent in exchange items that presumably her sibling needed. The difference lies in the fact that one thing a naditum could offer in exchange for goods was direct access to the sun god and his divine wife.

Naditums in Old Age

As they grew older, naditums increasingly depended on their nieces who were also naditums, and many chose to adopt a niece as a daughter—or even to adopt more than one niece. These younger women took care of their adopted mothers and helped manage their properties. The gagum itself was not an organization concerned with the welfare of its members in their old age (in this, again, they were not like convents); the naditums had to watch out for themselves.

This new relationship of niece as adopted daughter worked nicely for the women involved, but it complicated the whole inheritance situation. An older naditum’s brothers and male relatives generally seem to have assumed that her wealth would return to them. But she had the final say in where her inheritance went, and many naditums wrote up wills in which their property would go to their adopted daughter or daughters. (Naditums tended to have longer lives than other members of their family and often outlived their brothers. They seem to have been even less inclined, in their wills, to bequeath their wealth to their nephews.) Quite a few of the naditums’ daughters ended up in court, fighting against their adoptive mothers’ brothers (one of whom might, of course, be the woman’s own biological father) for the right to their property.

A woman without a niece in the gagum had another option—she could adopt one of her slaves to take care of her in old age.55 These were, surprisingly, not just women. Male slaves were also sometimes adopted. They retained their enslaved status, even while becoming the son or daughter of the naditum. Unlike the nieces, they didn’t inherit much on her death. They did, however, gain their freedom.

Elletum: A Scribal Student in Nippur

Sippar was one of many cities housing naditums during the reign of Hammurabi; another important center for them was in Nippur, home to Enlil, the great god of the whole Mesopotamian region. Nippur was north of Isin and south of Babylon, and by the reign of Hammurabi it had been a major city for hundreds of years. In Nippur, the right of women to become naditums had been held strictly within certain families that had lived within the city for a long period of time.56 As in Sippar, naditums could own houses that adjoined those of people who were not affiliated with their religious community.57 One of the neighborhoods in Nippur that was home to a naditum is of interest to us for another reason. It was also the location of a house that is worth a special visit.

As in almost all Mesopotamian cities, the houses in this neighborhood of Nippur (dubbed area TA by the excavators) were densely packed together along streets that zigzagged and collided with one another in unlikely places. A wide boulevard could reach a crossroads only to continue beyond it as nothing more than a narrow alley; corners jutted out into streets; streets dead-ended into front doors. Within the buildings, a wall could have been added across a room or courtyard to divide what had been a large house into two smaller ones. This was not a planned community. Builders over time had respected the need for certain roads to remain wide enough for the passage of carts and pedestrians, but the abrupt corners must have resulted in traffic jams and plenty of shouting from time to time.

Near just such a right-angle turn in a major road was a house that archaeologists referred to as House F (see Fig. 12.2). It was 250 meters (820 feet) south of Enlil’s great temple,58 and was excavated by teams from the University of Chicago and the University of Pennsylvania in 1951 and 1952. It showed itself right away to be an unusual place. More than 1,400 tablets were found there—a phenomenal number for what seemed at first to be an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood.


Fig. 12.2 Plan of House F in Nippur, mid-eighteenth century bce (based on Robson 2001, 41, Fig. 3).

Cuneiform tablets were so abundant in the house that, at one point when it came to be remodeled, tablets had been reused as building material.59 Why had so much writing taken place here? It wasn’t a big place; it boasted only about 45 square meters (484 square feet) of living space. There were two courtyards, one surrounded by three small rooms, and a larger one in the back of the house.60 The excavators found an oven for cooking, broken pots, even a fragment of a clay version of a board game also known from the royal tombs of Ur. Someone had lived there, cooked, passed the time playing games with friends, slept on the roof.61 But that same someone had also taught there, and that is what makes House F such an arresting place to visit. Finally, after being so grateful for the literary works that the scribal students kept alive through their studies, we can visit one of their schools.62

Visiting House F, a guest would be struck by curious installations in three places in the rooms. These were rectangular waterproof clay bins built into the floors. Students used them to recycle their tablets. Once a written exercise was done, the valuable clay could be turned back into a pristine tablet for the next exercise. Or, as in the case of many rectangular tablets in House F, the abandoned and unwanted tablets could be piled up to build benches, or even stacked and plastered over to create new bins for recycling other tablets.63

With the growth of literacy in the Old Babylonian period, one might expect to find the inauguration of a big corresponding new institution, the school, where more people could learn this important skill of writing. Oddly enough, the opposite seems to be true. In the earlier Ur III period, big schools probably existed, run by the great households of the palace and temples, in part to prepare civil servants to keep all those thousands of records of sheep, barley, beer, wool, and so on. The Ur III kings also had a more personal reason for promoting scribal schools—their own immortality. King Shulgi had expressed this hope in a hymn to himself:  “May my hymns be in everyone’s mouth; let the songs about me not pass from memory. So that the fame of my praise . . . shall never be forgotten, I have had them written down line by line in the House of the Wisdom of Nisaba in holy heavenly writing, as great works of scholarship. No one shall ever let any of it pass from memory.”64 The “House of the Wisdom of Nisaba” might have been a scribal school associated with the temple of Nisaba.65 The scribes were trained there to run the king’s administration while also memorizing and copying royal propaganda.

The Ur III schools may have educated dozens or even hundreds of students at a time.66 But in the Old Babylonian period, schooling became more privatized, just like the economy. If you wanted your son to be literate, you sent him to the house of a scribe to learn from a master, just as the naditum women did with the girls who learned to read and write in Sippar. Evidence for these types of small scribal schools in houses can be found at many sites across the Near East.

The master scribe who lived in House F (whose name we unfortunately don’t know) took on students who were intellectually ambitious. They were training to become not just scribes but scholars. They would keep alive great works in Sumerian, and they devoted years of their lives to this pursuit. It’s unclear how many students studied there, or how long they pursued their studies, but the house could have held only a few students at once.67 Only one scribe signed his name to any of the hundreds of school tablets found in the house. This was a young man named Elletum.68 The tablets found in House F allow us to follow a young scribe like Elletum through the different stages in his training.

As a young boy, Elletum certainly still lived at home with his parents and walked to House F, the nearby school he attended during the day. Almost all the houses in the neighborhood contained at least a few school exercise tablets when excavated, so it seems likely that most of the families there sent at least one of their sons to one of the local master teachers who taught in their houses.69 Elletum may have been as young as five or six when he started attending school. One scribal exercise from the Ur III period describes a boy’s day. It was written by a man looking back on his childhood. “When I arose early in the morning,” wrote the author, “I faced my mother and said to her: ‘Give me my lunch, I want to go to school!’ My mother gave me two rolls, and I set out.”70 Elletum would have arrived at the door of House F at a set time of day, perhaps fearing the wrath of “the fellow in charge of punctuality” who berated students if they arrived late. He turned to the right from the entrance hall of the house and passed into a courtyard, with benches and tablet recycling bins. This was where the boys had their lessons.71 Beyond it was a room where tablets were stored, and where almost 1,000 of the school tablets were excavated.72 As the Ur III author put it, “I entered before my teacher and made a respectful curtsy”73 then he took his seat on a bench, next to a handful of other students, and began his schoolwork.

The curriculum pursued by beginning students started with the mechanical process of simply getting a stylus to do what they wanted it to, when pressed into clay.74 This is harder than you might imagine. The stylus was made of reed or bone with a fine tip that created a slight wedge shape when impressed in the clay at an angle. The scribal students practiced the vertical lines, horizontal lines, and angular wedges that made up all the more complex signs they would later need to compose, and they did this over and over again. Each tablet was surveyed by the master then scraped clean or sent to the recycling bin. Next, the students moved on to simple signs that took more than one stroke of the stylus, and from there, in turn, they progressed to what are called tu-ta-ti exercises—copying signs that were related by sound, having the same first consonant and different vowel sounds.75

Early attempts at writing were often done on round tablets, which were only ever used in school (see Fig. 12.3). Children’s handwriting on these school tablets is big and often charmingly clumsy in comparison with the teacher’s neat example. One can imagine Elletum sitting on his bench in the shade, hunched over his tablet, struggling to get his stylus to produce the right lines and angles.


Fig. 12.3 Round school exercise tablet, on which a beginning student practiced writing the name of the god Urash, Old Babylonian period. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

This part of the process was probably not unlike many apprenticeships in other types of trades. If you were going to learn to make pots, for example, you probably spent months just coiling clay, or copying patterns onto pieces of broken pottery to get them right, or turning the pottery wheel for your master. No one would have trusted you with making or decorating a pot right away. Similarly, an apprentice scribe probably toiled away for ages before being given any real words to write.

When his handwriting was finally neat enough to move on—when his cuneiform signs were small enough and controlled enough—Elletum would have been allowed to start to copy lists of Sumerian and Akkadian personal names. This might seem rather arbitrary as a choice of what to write but, as we’ve seen, everyone’s name had a meaning as a short phrase or sentence. These usually had to do with devotion to a particular god, such as the name Sin-idinnam, which meant “the god Sin gave me [a son],” so the purpose of learning them was twofold. Obviously, a scribe would need to know how to write names in the course of his career, but he also got practice with the names of gods and simple verbs this way as well.

And on it went, as Elletum continued to attend school year after year, gradually moving on to copying more complicated words and later memorizing the spellings of hundreds, or even thousands, of nouns.76 The curriculum varied a little, depending on the choices made by the master scribe who was doing the teaching. For whatever reason, the teacher in House F dispensed with the tu-ta-ti lists, for example.77 But the lists the students did learn were remarkably standardized, passed down by one generation of scribes to another over centuries, and shared from Syria to Mesopotamia to Elam.78 Over the course of his elementary education a scribe studied a standard set of twenty-four large tablets that held a total of 3,300 lines, just listing nouns. These weren’t dictionaries or encyclopedias, just lists. The master must have provided an oral translation from Sumerian into the scribes’ own language of Akkadian.79 When they got to lists of professions, the young scribes were learning from a volume so ancient that many of the words were probably never used outside the classroom.80 It was, in fact, a list of professions, copied by Elletum and eventually abandoned in the house, that provides us with his name.81

By now Elletum and his classmates were sometimes given a different type of tablet to write on. The master scribe wrote out the relevant lines that the student was to learn on the left-hand side of a rectangular tablet. The student dutifully copied the lines on the right-hand side. After his master had seen (and presumably critiqued) the student’s work, he didn’t recycle the tablet—that would be a waste of the master’s beautiful exemplar on the left. Instead the scribe wiped his own work clean with a stone eraser, or just with his fingers (you can often see the scribe’s fingerprints when he did this) and tried it again.82 Or perhaps he passed the exercise tablet on to a fellow student and began work on a new list of nouns.

If this sounds dull, it almost certainly was. In fact, if a scribe, like many of the students in House F, continued his training past the elementary stages, he got the chance to copy essays that reminded him just how dull and rigid the education system was, like the one quoted above. It satirized the experience of a boy educated in one of the large schools that had existed in the Ur III period when it was written. Scribal masters were still using this essay as part of the curriculum in the Old Babylonian period. Another passage gives us a sense of the rules a student had to follow:

The door monitor (said), “Why did you go out without my say-so?” He beat me.

The jug monitor, “Why did you take [water or beer] without my say-so?” He beat me.

The Sumerian monitor, “You spoke in Akkadian!” He beat me.

My teacher, “Your handwriting is not at all good!” He beat me.83

An Old Babylonian scribal master who taught in his home, like the one who owned House F, would not have had space for any of the monitors who are mentioned in this school assignment. But the basic curriculum hadn’t changed much since the Ur III period, and perhaps the corporal punishment hadn’t changed either. Our scribe might well have lived in fear of beatings from his teacher.

Before Elletum got to the point of copying these stories about school, though—before he started the advanced curriculum—he encountered a new subject of study: mathematics. Around the same time that the students were learning to write the names of professions and titles, they began memorizing multiplication and reciprocal tables, learning the systems used for weights and measures and copying the relevant signs.84

We know that the scribal master in House F taught elementary mathematics to his students because 9 percent of the 1,425 tablets found there were mathematical,85 mostly comprising lists and tables that the students needed to memorize (see Fig. 12.4).86 These included multiplication, reciprocals, square roots, and cube roots. But some other scribal schools in Nippur and elsewhere were run by mathematicians. In addition to the elementary curriculum, their students mastered arithmetic and discussed complex word problems. The mathematicians who ran these schools also came up with creative mathematical problems to share with other mathematicians. Some mathematical documents among their records were not for teaching at all, but just for communicating ideas with colleagues.87


Fig. 12.4 A cuneiform tablet with a multiplication table, Old Babylonian period. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Mesopotamian mathematics reached its height in the Old Babylonian period; more evidence of mathematical learning and inquiry survives from this era than from any other in the ancient history of the region.88 The sexagesimal system that we encountered in the first tablets from Uruk89 was still in use—it was never supplanted in the ancient Near East. Having 60 as the base number seems to have worked very well in all their practical uses of mathematics, which mostly revolved around measuring and dividing land, and organizing and providing for workmen. By the beginning of this period, scribes had invented a place value system to aid in calculations and as a way of transferring from one system of weights and measures to another. The largest units were on the left, followed by progressively smaller units. Hence, a number written with the cuneiform signs that we would read as 17 24 was understood to indicate (17 × 60) + 24 = 1,020 + 24 = 1,044, whereas a number written 24 17 equaled (24 × 60) + 17 = 1,440 + 17 = 1,457.90 For the first time, the place values of the numbers had meaning.

Historian Eleanor Robson has done extensive research on both the structure and the social setting of Mesopotamian mathematics. She argues that one reason for the increased emphasis on mathematics in this era may lie in the kings’ own priorities. Many of the Old Babylonian kings put an emphasis not just on promoting justice in terms of seeking evidence and making fair decisions, but on the kind of justice that demanded accuracy in measurement.91 They wanted to make sure that those fields allocated by men like Shamash-hazir were just the size recorded, that an inherited orchard was divided equally between brothers, that the temples the kings commissioned were well designed and engineered, and that workers received fair pay appropriate to the number of days they had worked. The literate men (and a few women) who took responsibility for all these aspects of the administration needed to understand numbers, weights, measures, and geometry. They had to learn it all in school. But they learned it in ways that don’t look much like mathematical thinking today, and not just because of their base-60 system. The scribes produced very few diagrams (even when geometric principles were discussed) and thought about numbers without using equations. They came up with accurate answers to their real-world (and imagined) mathematical problems, but they did so in sentences full of verbs such as “append,” “turn around,” “accumulate,” “break,” and “tear out,” rather than the abstract symbols used today such as +, −, ×, ÷, and √.92

Although mathematics has continued to be practiced in Iraq ever since the time of these early mathematicians, much of the Old Babylonian mathematical knowledge was lost with the collapse of this era, and it turns out that even the later forms of Mesopotamian mathematics probably didn’t have a discernable influence on Greek thinkers.93 The Greeks seem to have rediscovered and invented new ways to approach mathematical problems that had been solved more than a thousand years before.

To return to House F, the elementary curriculum pursued by Elletum ended with the study of contracts and proverbs. Scribes copied samples of realistic legal documents that they could emulate later when out working in the real world.94 The proverbs seem at first glance to be wise sayings that perhaps reflected folk tradition. They were terse, sometimes funny, and may have rung true to the scribes in ways we often can’t understand. But some scholars have suggested that we may have misunderstood these proverbs. Perhaps they weren’t well-known phrases after all; perhaps they were written just for the curriculum, specifically to teach grammar. This would explain why some of them make no sense at all.95

This seems to have been the point in the curriculum when many young men ended their scribal training. They had rudimentary mathematical skills and took their multiplication tables and other useful tablets with them to consult in the future.96 They had learned how to write; they had mastered the nouns and verbs they needed. They could read and write letters and contracts. But some of these former students may have done little writing in their lives after this. For many people it would have been enough to be able to read the contracts, letters, and lists that came their way in everyday life. They could always hire a more advanced scribe if they needed to have a document written.

In House F, though, most of the scribal students seem to have stayed on for the advanced training in Sumerian that was the real expertise of their master. These young men were not just learning a craft that they could use for a job; they were becoming scholars who would belong to an elite intellectual community, one that was conversant in Sumerian and its literature.97 Sumerian wasn’t a spoken language by this time.98 The intense focus on it was, in a way, an attempt to hold on to what they thought of as a golden age in the past, and even to define a Sumerian culture that brought order and authority to what was for them the modern world.99 When you think about it, the in-depth study of old stories and hymns in a dead language wasn’t a particularly practical thing to do. The fact that this literary world existed shows that their culture allowed space for reflection and intellectual pursuits quite separate from the needs of the palace and the gods. Elletum may well have been among the students who stayed on. Later, after he had finished his schooling, his name appears as a witness to three contracts found in this same part of town;100 he seems to have become a member of a community of literate and powerful men.

The advanced training curriculum was all designed to expose the scribes to Sumerian literature. Since they didn’t speak Sumerian natively, the curriculum gradually brought in more complicated grammar over time. Around 600 of the tablets from House F featured excerpts from Sumerian literary works—this was obviously a crucial part of the curriculum.101

Assuming he did, in fact, continue in school, Elletum would have begun his advanced studies with four literary works that just about every scribe copied at the beginning of his study of literature. They were not epic poems or stories; they were all hymns. Their appearance in scribal training programs is so uniform and ubiquitous that they have been dubbed the Tetrad.102 Three of the hymns were dedicated to dead kings, all of them rulers of Isin, which suggests that this part of the curriculum had its roots at the height of Isin’s power, before Hammurabi brought that region under Babylonian control. The fourth hymn in the Tetrad was to the goddess Nisaba, who watched over scribes. These hymns were wisely chosen for their simple Sumerian and for the way in which the verb forms became gradually more complex.103

Scribal students then moved on to other, more complicated, Sumerian texts. Ten more literary works with more difficult grammar (now referred to as the Decad) were found in multiple copies in House F.104 A further fourteen literary works seem to have been favorites of the teacher. He had the students write out many hymns, stories about gods and heroes, and tales of scribal school. These, and other literary works, were used so routinely that they were actually listed in catalogs on clay tablets, the way one might list assigned readings on a syllabus. The sequence of works might seem odd to us. Students didn’t study myths, then incantations, then hymns, then lamentations, for example. The genres were all mixed up together. They don’t seem to have served as religious instruction, or even, by this time, as propaganda for kings (the ones honored were long dead), though some of them did raise some philosophically interesting questions.

In the course of his advanced studies, Elletum almost certainly copied and memorized stories pertaining to an ancient hero and king of Uruk known as Gilgamesh. He’s another of the big names of ancient Near Eastern history, like Sargon and Hammurabi, but the familiar epic about his search for immortality had not yet been written in Elletum’s time. Until the Old Babylonian period, Gilgamesh had been known as Bilgames, and he featured as the hero of a number of Sumerian poems that had been passed down orally over generations. At some point during the Ur III period, scribes began writing these tales down and using them as school exercises. Hundreds of years later, around the thirteenth century BCE, these poems and other works about the hero eventually inspired an author named Sin-leqi-unnini to write the version of the Epic of Gilgamesh that is well known today, but that was still far off in the future when Elletum was in school.

In House F, three of the old Ur III Sumerian poems about the adventures of Bilgames and his servant Enkidu were still being studied.105 These stories shared a theme: just as in the later epic, Bilgames didn’t want to be forgotten; he was seeking some kind of immortality. One story quotes Bilgames saying in despair, “my gaze fell on a corpse drifting down the river, afloat on the water: I too shall become like that, just so shall I be.”106 To avoid this ignominious end, Bilgames set out to become famous by negotiating with, and tricking, a giant monster named Huwawa who lived in a distant cedar forest (though Enkidu ended up killing Huwawa, against Bilgames’s wishes). In another story that Ellatum would have copied, Bilgames and Enkidu, perhaps again seeking notoriety, killed a sacred bull, the Bull of Heaven, which had been sent to Earth by the goddess Inana.107 The third Sumerian story was about Bilgames, Enkidu, and the Netherworld.

But one of the works copied by a scribal student was different in many ways—it was relatively new at the time, and more ambitious than the earlier tales. Bilgames’s name had been changed to Gilgamesh, and the tale was written in the contemporary Akkadian language (though the text was bilingual, also including a translation into ancient Sumerian).108 A fragment of this new work about Gilgamesh was found by the archaeologists in House F, and it can be combined with other fragments from elsewhere to get a sense of what its author had achieved. It was apparently the first iteration of the Epic of Gilgamesh, perhaps the earliest epic poem ever written, and it dealt with themes of friendship, fame, kingship, and fear of death, in ways that are still compelling today. This early epic contained many of the events repeated by Sin-leqi-unnini in his later version, which the Mesopotamians called “He Who Saw Everything,” from its first line. The title of every literary work was its first line.

The name of the author of the earlier Old Babylonian epic is unknown, and much of the story is missing from the fragments that have been found, but it was clearly a masterwork that integrated ideas from many earlier Sumerian stories. It was called (again after its first line) “Surpassing All Other Kings.”109 Elletum might well have been familiar with the whole epic, even though just a small part of it was retrieved from the school where he studied.

The author of “Surpassing All Other Kings” promoted the character of Enkidu to a higher position than before—he was now Gilgamesh’s friend and equal, not his servant. The friends still fought Huwawa, and they still did it for fame, in order that “[A name that] is eternal I will establish forever,” as Gilgamesh put it,110 but now there was no negotiating with the giant; they intended all along to kill him.111

In a missing segment of the epic, Enkidu died, leaving Gilgamesh devastated at the loss of his friend. The author captured the king’s anguish and refusal to believe that Enkidu could be gone:

“Enkidu whom I loved so deeply,

who with me went through every danger:

he went to the doom of mortal men.

Weeping over him day and night,

I did not surrender his body for burial—

‘Maybe my friend will arise at my cry!’—

for seven days and seven nights,

until a maggot dropped from his nostril.”

After this shock and the deep sadness it engendered, Gilgamesh decided that no longer was it enough for him to achieve lasting fame. He wanted to live forever. He feared death as never before.

In the course of his wanderings after Enkidu died, Gilgamesh came upon a woman who owned a tavern. Her advice to him is extraordinary. Consider, Gilgamesh was a powerful king in this tale, one who had many heroic adventures, who led warriors, who was even in regular conversation with the gods. She said to him:

“O Gilgamesh, where are you wandering?

The life that you seek you never will find:

when the gods created mankind,

death they dispensed to mankind,

life they kept for themselves.

But you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,

enjoy yourself always by day and by night!

Make merry each day,

dance and play day and night!

Let your clothes be clean,

let your head be washed, may you bathe in water!

Gaze on the child who holds your hand,

let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!

For such is the destiny [of mortal men]”112

The tavern keeper didn’t tell Gilgamesh to be a hero, to fight, to make a name for himself. She told him to go home, to be a devoted husband and father, to take care of his body and clothes, and to be happy. He should enjoy the life he had, not continue in pursuit of eternal life. And, she said, the most important aspects of the life to enjoy were those that he shared with almost all his subjects: food, dance, cleanliness, home, and family.

Gilgamesh didn’t pay much attention to the tavern keeper’s message; he continued his quest, going in pursuit of the one man known to have defeated death, a hero named (in this version) Uta-naishtim. We don’t have the end of the Old Babylonian version of the epic, but it might have matched the later version. If so, Gilgamesh eventually reached Uta-naishtim and asked him for the secret to eternal life. That secret was, however, beyond Gilgamesh’s reach. Uta-naishtim had only received this gift from the gods because he had managed to survive a worldwide flood by building a boat and riding out the storm with his family and many animals. This earlier version of the biblical Noah assumed several different names in Mesopotamian literature, but his character was always the same, as were the basic outlines of the story. After landing his boat on a mountaintop and giving thanks to the gods for his survival, the gods in turn gave him eternal life.

In the later version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the flood survivor (there called Ut-napishtim) took pity on Gilgamesh after telling his tale, and told him how to obtain a plant that would make him young again. But he failed to hold onto the plant, leaving it to be found by a snake. Eventually Gilgamesh made it back to his home city of Uruk, apparently reconciled at last to his own mortality, and proud of the city he ruled.

How much of this might have been in the Old Babylonian version is impossible to say, but Gilgamesh almost certainly encountered Uta-naishtim and probably heard his story about how he gained immortality. Perhaps Elletum, as he copied the story, was moved by the tavern keeper’s speech, or provoked by the ideas of death and immortality. The story of Gilgamesh lived on for centuries. In our own time, translations and retellings of the later epic still inspire readers.

We have no way of knowing what the master teacher taught his students about Gilgamesh (or any other literary works). A great deal of the instruction must have been oral—perhaps the teacher engaged his students in thinking about the meanings and ramifications of the literature they read.

When they had learned all they could from their master, the scribes would have been employed in any number of ways—by the palace perhaps, or a temple, or as physicians, diviners, judges, or surveyors, or to record court cases and contracts. Their literacy was valuable. They also seem to have participated in scholarly discussions with others and sometimes to have collected and copied important works. They were interested in old ways of writing signs, archaic meanings of words, and, generally, the history and structure of their writing system.113 Some of them almost certainly started taking on students of their own, continuing the cycle.

Not everyone who was literate shared this experience, though. People like the merchants who traded in Anatolia probably had a much more rudimentary education than the scribes of House F. The merchants would have apprenticed to a scribe (probably in someone’s home) for long enough to learn the signs necessary to write a letter in Akkadian or to keep a record of a sale or a debt, and then they stopped. They didn’t need to master the old literary language of Sumerian. The letters they wrote to one another included very few logograms, which were Sumerian signs that stood in for whole words. Logograms were used as quick abbreviations of their Akkadian equivalents and were employed by scribes with an advanced education. Some of the Assyrian merchants used only a few dozen cuneiform signs regularly—a relatively easy number to learn.114 Although some of their letters were meticulously written in a fine script, on other occasions the handwriting in the letters could be sloppy, leaving out wedges here and there. In these cases, writing was completely utilitarian. It got the job done. If an Assyrian merchant had encountered an epic poem or a Sumerian hymn, he might not have been able to make head or tail of it.

As literacy became more widespread in the Old Babylonian period, the style of handwriting became more efficient. This was not just true of the Assyrian merchants. Across Mesopotamia, a cursive style that varied region by region replaced the formal calligraphy of the Ur III scribes.115 Scribes now needed to be able to take dictation, so they had to be able to write fast. Unnecessary curlicues (or their wedge-shaped equivalents) fell away. If someone else could make sense of what you wrote, that was enough.

The naditum women of Sippar and the scribes in Nippur were among hundreds of thousands of people who must have benefited from the relative stability of Mesopotamia in Hammurabi’s time. In these chapters about the early second millennium, we have knocked on just a few doors, so to speak, peering for a moment into Ashur-idi’s textile business, into Shamash-hazir’s struggles to confirm the land claims of shepherds and soldiers, into Awat-Aya’s feast-filled initiation ceremony, and into Elletum’s classroom, while passing by the records of countless other moments and other lives. This phase of the mid-second millennium BCE provides us with so many options of doors to knock on because literacy was no longer confined to the great institutions. Writing had at last been put to use by private individuals, and their letters, contracts, and lists, often found in their own houses, shine a much brighter light than before on people who did not necessarily work for the palace or for a temple.

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