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Mesopotamian Scribes

More than 5,000 years ago, a glorious civilization called Mesopotamia arose in the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. This civilization took advantage of its countless benefits. If there were any obstacles, the Mesopotamians adapted. Soon, great cities emerged as a result of the discovery of farming, and there was a surplus of food. Because of this surplus, not everyone had to farm, which allowed non-farming people to cull their expertise in other fields, so to say. These people created different careers and products, which in turn promoted trade: you have something I want, I have something you want…let’s switch. As new products were introduced and more people began to trade, and on a larger scale, people needed to keep track of their possessions and their transactions. This is when writing developed…and with it scribes (Haywood 22-24).

According to Oxford’s Compact English Dictionary(2006), the word scribe, meaning a person who copies out documents, is rooted in the Latin word for write, scribes. But scribes and their language have existed far longer than Latin. In fact, many ancient scribes created Latin roots. The earliest written language was pictographic, or writing with pictures, and was used to communicate basic information about crops and taxes. As the need for writing changed, pictograms evolved into cuneiform, a more complex form of writing that can also transcribe any language, and was. The Mesopotamians, having developed it, used cuneiform, but the nearby Elamites, Hittites, and Urartians used it too since they themselves lacked a written language.

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Just as the language the scribes used developed, so too did their tools. With pictograms, scribes used a pointed stylus, probably crafted from a reed to scratch the needed symbol into a soft clay or wax tablet. But with cuneiform, the point was squared off, hence the wedge-shaped letters (The British Museum). The stylus was one of a scribe’s most important tools, however, it was not the only instrument used. Sometimes scribes would use cylinder seals made of stone or metal, and on which scenes of men, animals, and gods were carved. A seal could be rolled over a tablet of clay and act as a signature. Some people, though, didn’t need seals, or else were too poor, so they simply used their fingernails to sign (The British Museum).

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Tablets were very common mediums for communication, but there were a great many styles of tablets in use. Made of clay, prisms and cylinders were covered with cuneiform inscriptions describing royal military achievements, as were stone reliefs and statues, and were built into city and temple walls and buried under new buildings. Palaces and temples commissioned by a king were built with bricks stamped with his name. Administrative records, contracts, and personal letters were put on rectangular clay tablets, while round tablets were generally for school use, like in a copying exercise. Scribes would also use a wood or ivory writing board sheeted in the wax that could be melted down and reused (The British Museum).

Mesopotamians were deeply rooted in religion. There were many Mesopotamia deities, but one of particular note, at least in this context, is the god Nabu, who was the diving patron of scribes and writing, wisdom, and knowledge (. Although today we view the Mesopotamians’ religion and beliefs as superstitious and pagan, we must keep in mind that Christianity was far from being born and they lacked both the scientific knowledge and the technological capabilities we have today.

Scribes were immensely important people in the ancient world. They recorded royal achievements, weather, trade, significant events, and virtually everything else of note on any level. Scribes were a crucial part of Mesopotamian society and, as The British Museum puts it, “Without scribes, letters would not have been written or read, royal monuments would not have been carved with cuneiform, and stories would have been told and then forgotten.”

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Mesopotamian Scribes. (2021, Feb 18). Retrieved February 7, 2023, from