Skip to main content

Learning to Write in Ancient Cultures

About 5,000 years ago, Mesopotamian boys and girls learned to write while sitting in sunny courtyards near their houses. They slowly pushed the sliced tip of a reed into handheld clay tablets, repeating patterns of wedges to make cuneiform signs and words.

Paul Delnero, associate professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies, is studying some of these tablets to confirm how people learned to write in Mesopotamia and to change the way scholars view Mesopotamian society, language, and culture. 

Where Writing Started

Cuneiform was created around 3100 B.C.E., in what is now Iraq and Syria. Experts consider it the world’s first and most widely used written language. There are millions of surviving clay tablets for scholars to study and translate. Delnero says that until recently, most academics thought learning to write cuneiform was an uncommon skill, reserved for elites in Mesopotamian society. His research shows the opposite. More likely, most people learned to read and write as children. Writing was an important part of daily life and culture. 

Paul Delnero

It reframes all kinds of things. It resituates education as a thing that was intended to produce practical skills and forces us to reevaluate the social status that people had and their place in society.” 

— Paul Delnero

The Proof is in the Tablets

A practice tablet where students copied elements of Syllable Alphabet B, which a teacher would have written on the left.

The proof is in the tablets. Delnero is studying clay exercise tablets that children had used like slates or chalkboards. A student would copy a teacher’s writing and erase it after each try. In particular, he transcribed and edited a practice list of close to 100 basic cuneiform signs called Syllable Alphabet B. Researchers have found the alphabet on more than 600 imperfectly copied tablets.  

Based on his analysis of these and other tablets from the period, he posits that many young students first learned to create four basic wedge marks. They then combined those marks to create cuneiform signs by copying basic lists like Syllable Alphabet B. Eventually they learned more complex writing. The number of times this list was copied compared to other scribal exercises shows how frequently the basics of cuneiform writing were taught.

The tablets also show signs of how humdrum the lessons were. There are ancient doodles and kids’ teeth marks left in the clay. Learning to write was an ordinary part of life, not just for high-class temple or royal scribes, Delnero concludes. Young Mesopotamians may have used these skills to write for personal or practical business needs, similar to young people in modern times. 

The Value of Writing and Humanities

Delnero says this perspective changes how we understand Mesopotamian culture. It also changes how humans value writing and the process of learning to write. In a time when technical skills are increasingly valued over “soft” skills, this research reminds us that the arts and humanities are an underlying key to society’s success, he says. It also dovetails with recent research in cognitive science, archaeology, and literary theory about the historical importance of writing, how handwriting helps us learn to read, and the important role of handwriting in cognitive and creative processes.   

“There is a growing emphasis on learning things that are marketable,” Delnero says. “My research shows that supposed aesthetic skills also taught something imminently practical. You’re learning everything you might need for the building blocks of life.”