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Literacy in the Old Babylonian City of Nippur

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Bringing education in ancient Mesopotamia to life

Uncovering what life was like in 2000 BCE Mesopotamia could help us to understand how and why human civilisation made such impressive advances at this time. It could even inform our own approaches to education.

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Mesopotamia, located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is modern-day Iraq, was home to one of the earliest human civilisations that we know of. The people who lived here – the Sumerians and Akkadians – left behind a treasure of written history on clay tablets, many of which suggest a burgeoning system of learning. Many of these tablets were found in the city of Nippur – the focal point of the MESOPOLIT project, which was undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme. “What we might call the early Old Babylonian World of around 2 000 BCE was a period of fragmented city states vying for power,” explains MESOPOLIT Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow Robert Middeke-Conlin from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. “Into this world emerges the city of Nippur. This was never an economic or political power, but rather a seat of worship and a centre of learning.”

Educational evolution in Mesopotamia

Through critically assessing various clay tablets from Nippur and elsewhere in Mesopotamia, Middeke-Conlin hoped to better understand how bureaucrats and tradespeople were trained, and how literacy and numeracy evolved. Outside of Nippur, he was able to discern that a number of texts that seemed to be administrative were indeed most probably used to teach bureaucrats in a kind of professional education. In Nippur, he was able to chart the utility of education, and ultimately highlight the diversity of education in what would be Babylonia. “There was a lot of memorising words and phrases, and eventually texts,” he says. “We can build up an image of a bureaucrat as someone who needed to be able to read and write, and carry out mathematics.” On the mathematics side of things, Middeke-Conlin was able to note the development of the sexagesimal place value notation (SPVN) system (the reason we have a 60-minute hour today). This complex method for multiplication was developed over a 200-year period, and the project was able to trace this evolution’s effects on economic and administrative texts. Finally, the historical record underlines the importance of educating and passing on knowledge to surveyors. “These guys were really needed for projects like canal building,” adds Middeke-Conlin. “Here we see the development of really strong mathematics.”

Picture of Babylonian life

An impressive achievement of the MESOPOLIT project has been the bridging of academic disciplines. Middeke-Conlin notes that historical mathematicians and Sumerian linguists tend not to cross into each other’s fields. Taking a more holistic view to interpreting ancient texts enabled Middeke-Conlin to build a clearer picture of their use. Discrepancies and mistakes for example could indicate that tablets were being used similar to exercise books. “I have shown that some seemingly administrative texts were most probably used for teaching, and thus don’t necessarily reflect administrative reality,” he notes. Middeke-Conlin also detected in the historical record what must have been an ongoing debate on how to implement the ‘new’ discovery of SPVN numbers. This might have been played out in different administrations across Mesopotamia. “This is where I would like to see further study,” he says. Indeed, the emergence of this sexagesimal numerical system also underlines a universal truth – while every civilisation makes use of the tools they have developed, these tools change the people who use them. “For Mesopotamians, it was the numbers themselves and the abacus,” remarks Middeke-Conlin. “For us, it is the internet. You develop, based on the tools you make.”


MESOPOLIT, Mesopotamia, civilisation, Sumerians, Akkadians, Babylonia, Nippur, SPVN

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