Cuneiform tablet with schoolwork
Old Babylonian, about 1900-1700 BC
Probably from southern Iraq
Literacy was not widespread in ancient Mesopotamia. Schooling began at an early age in the 'tablet-house'. Much of the initial instruction and discipline seems to have been in the hands of an elder student known as a 'big brother'. He had to be flattered or bribed with gifts to avoid a beating.
The first thing a boy (and very rarely a girl) had to learn was how to make a tablet and handle the stylus which made the impressions in the clay. After learning the basic cuneiform signs the pupil went on to learn the thousands of different Sumerian words. The teacher would write out some lines on one side of a tablet (here it is a proverb). The schoolboy studied these, turned over the tablet and tried to reproduce what the teacher had written. Finally the pupil reached the stage of learning and writing Sumerian literature.
After completing their training, the students became entitled to call themselves dubsar or scribe. They then became a member of a privileged class. School tablets have been found in almost all of the private houses in southern Mesopotamia of this date that have been excavated. This suggests that in wealthy families all the male children went to school.
C.B.F. Walker, Cuneiform (Reading the Past) (London, The British Museum Press, 1987)