Scribes and Education in Ancient Mesopotamia

You may have heard the saying, "knowledge is power." And how do we gain knowledge? Through education, of course.

For most of human history, a great majority of people were uneducated, at least in the traditional sense. By that I mean that most people did not know how to read and write, were not familiar with the workings of government or law, and could not do anything beyond the simplest math. That's not to say that they were not educated in some way.

Throughout history, most children's education came from their parents. If you were the son of a farmer in ancient Mesopotamia, you would learn the ways of a farmer. You would then take over the family farm and pass that knowledge down to your children. If you were a girl in ancient Mesopotamia, you learned the incredibly important skills of your mother - cooking, raising children, caring for the family, making clothes, possibly creating pottery, etc. In other words, you learned the occupation of your mother or father.

The Sumerians, however, created the first known formal education system (schools). These schools taught the skills of a scribe. A scribe was (and is) basically a professional writer. Learning to be a scribe was a possible pathway to the most powerful profession in ancient Mesopotamia - a priest. Priests needed to know how to read and write to keep the records of the ziggurat (a Mesopotamian temple) and to monitor the sun, moon, stars and planets. Scribes could also go to work for the government (keeping track of taxes, building projects, floods, etc.) or for business owners (sales records, harvests, etc.)

The path of a scribe was not easy, however. First, you had to be a member of a wealthy family. It is unlikely that you could get into scribe school if you were the son of a lowly farmer. By the way, scribes were almost exclusively males. Second, you had to attend school for many years to learn the written language (cuneiform), the number system (based on the number 60), and the methods and conventions of a scribe. Much of scribe school consisted of memorizing and copying cuneiform texts from one tablet to another. Scribe teachers ran a tight ship too. Beatings were not uncommon for students that did not perform well or misbehaved.

No, it was not easy, but the student that could make it through school and become a scribe earned the right for many rewards. Scribes were some of the most powerful people in Mesopotamia because they controlled information and knowledge. Anytime you can do something that most people cannot, you have a good chance to be respected, powerful, and possibly very wealthy.

Check out this site for some interesting information and activities dealing with writing and scribes in ancient Mesopotamia from the British Museum.