House F was a Sumerian house in urban Nippur that operated during the 1740s BCE. (Robson 2001, 40) Encompassing approximately 400 square feet, and with writing even on the walls and furniture, House F has completely shadowed nearby sites by procuring over a thousand clay tablets of mostly literature and school lists. This genre of clay tablet is particularly remarkable, since other locations usually consisted of administrative and bureaucratic tedium. (Robson 2001, 40) Despite not even being completely unearthed, numerous clay tablet recycling bins (characteristic of Sumerian learning institutions) and many odd-positioned inscriptions discovered. It is literally as clear as the writing on the wall that House F had a role as an eduba – or “tablet house” – where writing was taught, and where the faculty likely also lived. (Robson 2001, 39-40)
A large percentage of the tablets found at House F were school lists. (Robson 2001, 45) Examination of these curricula revealed that training varied from school to school. (Robson 2001, 48) In the case of House F, neat texts written by professors or advanced students were a stark contrast to the sloppy inscriptions obviously made by newcomers. Acrographic tablets to familiarize students with clay tablet usage came first, followed by learning of professions, useful signs and then arithmetic. (Robson 2001, 48) Next, students were given compositions to memorize. (Robson 2001, 48) However, just as revealing as what the curriculum did contain is what was glaringly omitted. Whether as personal preference on behalf of an ancient professor, or archaeological oversight, tablets teaching reeds, vessels, leather and metal objects were noticeably absent. (Robson 2001, 48-49) However, as surrounding schoolhouses have an high number of such tablets, this student theorizes that possibly tablets were loaned from schoolhouse to schoolhouse and that those tablets were incidentally just not returned before the demise of House F (or perhaps they were stolen after House F fell). Further evidence supporting this theory is that there were vastly unequal numbers of tablets focusing on different topics. (Robson 2001, 51) This is indicative of the Uppur tablet houses staggering their coursework to allow flow of different genres of tablet between professors, as his students needed them. Of course, this theory assumes that groups of students began instruction at set times and in large groups.
Sumerian literature accounted for another large percentage of the tablets found. Literature in other languages was found very rarely, if at all. Sumerian compositions, likely memorized by students to teach them proper penmanship and literary form, were found in disproportionate quantities (similar to the school lists). (Robson 2001, 52-55) The teaching of Sumerian literature, even as Akkadian became the favored language of administration, business and law, reflects that House F and other schoolhouses were tradition and focused on keeping alive a proud Sumerian tradition. (Robson 2001, 60) This reverence for a growingly archaic language is further reflected by the praise poetry, which was dedicated to a ruler from many centuries past. (Robson 2001, 60)
The realities of Sumerian education described above are much more banal than the overwrought Sumerian tales describing ancient curriculum. (Robson 2001, 1 & 61) By using concrete evidence to extrapolate information – rather than relying on self-indulgent accounts – Robson has painted a unique picture of tablet houses. While the facts of academia are not as humorous and entertaining as the ancients themselves described, the value of the truth outweighs this loss. For example, the discovery that tablets were recycled resulted in a major breakthrough in understanding why clay tablets are not as common as expected based on population size. (Robinson 2001, 62) Also, learning the truth about how Sumerian was taught gives researchers deeper insight into the language itself. By learning the language the way it was meant to be learned – regardless of how variable this intangible may be – archaeologists and scholars of Sumerian culture can further their deepening knowledge of a society that was, a language that used to be and a legacy that remains.
Robson, Eleanor. 2001. The Tablet House: A Scribal School in Old Babylonian Nippur. RA 95: 39-66.