Saturday, October 21, 2023

Colophons and Scholars

The scribal system was the primary vehicle for transmitting and preserving knowledge in Mesopotamia in the first millennium BCE. Writing and copying literary and scientific compositions was part of elementary education in Mesopotamian schools. The entire career of a scholar, from his apprenticeship to becoming an “experienced scribe, who neglects nothing,” can be traced thanks to the colophons that he appended at the bottom of his works throughout his lifetime. Although they called themselves “scribes”, they were in fact scholars and scientists, the keepers of scribal lore, tradition and historical records. Many were affiliated to temples and royal courts, but others practised privately.

LB 2544 rev
LB 2544: reverse with colophon.

Their colophons contain a wealth of information on the transfer of knowledge. Firstly, by giving us the name of the scribe, his master, and the tablet’s owner, they shed light on the genealogies (whether real or imagined) of scholars and on the networks of patronage in which they worked. Secondly, by giving the date and place of a tablet’s production, they enable us to trace the transmission of knowledge through space and time. There are ca. 1300 colophons we know of come from all major Babylonian cities and range in time from the beginning of the Assyrian domination of Mesopotamia (ca. 900 BCE) until writing in cuneiform ceased in the first century BCE. Colophons present the potential for ground-breaking research into the social contexts of one of mankind’s longest-living traditions of learning.

Project “Colophons and Scholars” suggests a digital database of colophons to establish an infrastructure for future research. The project is funded by Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 797758.




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