Back to School in Babylonia


Through March 24, 2024
ISAC Museum
Chicago, Illinois

This special exhibition at the Institute for the Study of Ancient Cultures (ISAC; formerly the Oriental Institute) explores what scribal training was like in ancient Babylonia.

Since literacy in the ancient Near East was reserved for priests and royal scribes, most of the documents that survive from Babylonia were created by skilled professionals who worked for the king, temples, and local authorities. A highly specialized art, reading and writing Sumerian and Akkadian required mastering the complex cuneiform script. Accordingly, the exhibit examines the aims, methods, and struggles of literacy education in ancient Babylonia.

The exhibit takes as its point of departure a particular scribal school excavated in Nippur, a Mesopotamian city in present-day southern Iraq. In the early 1950s, a joint archaeological expedition of ISAC and the Penn Museum uncovered the school, complete with clay tablets bearing school exercises and other objects reflecting curricular life. Dating from the Old Babylonian period (c. 2000–1595 BCE), these objects are held in several museums in the United States and Iraq, and some ten dozen are now reunited in this exhibit.

Among the items on display is this tablet fragment. Featuring the opening and closing lines of a Sumerian satirical text called Schooldays, it provides insight into the routines, lessons, and hardships of scribes-in-training. For example, the author asks, “Schoolkid, where have you been going since the beginning of time?” to which the student replies, “I went to school. I recited my tablet, ate my meal. I formed my tablet, wrote, and completed it.”

The accompanying catalog is available for free on the exhibit’s website.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel

Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Literacy in the time of Jesus
The Question of Israelite Literacy
Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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