Since the invention of writingin the late fourth millennium B.C., scribes were instrumental in the development of the administrativestructures that made Mesopotamian citieseconomically competitive. Literate bureaucrats became a mainstay of Mesopotamian institutions, forming a kind of civil service sector that operated in large temple estates, the palace, and, to a lesser extent, for private businesses. Centralized states, such as the Third Dynasty of Ur or the Neo-Assyrian empire, were particularly reliant on their services. One of their main responsibilities was accounting. Scribes had to keep track of daily expenditures (on rations for the laborers, equipment, materials, etc.), tally the income from diverse sources, and keep annual records that showed the balance of each account. In Assyria, scribes also accompanied the army on campaign; several reliefs show how they counted severed heads or hands for the battle statistics or itemized tribute payments. Scribes formed part of the personnel within a hierarchically structured labor organization. They underwent often lengthy training, and relatively few assumed positions of authority. Apart from the bureaucratic function, scribes were concerned with the classification of knowledge. They composed lists of signs and lexical lists that constituted an attempt to provide reference works for scribal training and at the same time codify the material and intellectual repertoire of Mesopotamian civilization. They were also concerned to preserve important oral traditions, such as myths, proverbs, songs, and esoteric wisdom. As such, scribes became guardians of a literary tradition that was accorded the value of antiquity and the weight of authority. This gave the highly trained scribes considerable influence at court, for instance, since they were able to underpin ideological changes or, indeed, to resist them. A number of literary works are now thought to have been politically motivated
   As intellectual elites, scribes had most leverage in connection with esoteric knowledge, such as divination (see OMENS), magic, and astrology/astronomy. This is particularly evident in the late NeoAssyrian empire. In the late period, the prestige of scribes seems to have been at its peak. Although at the time of the Third Dynasty of Ur, King Shulgi had boasted of having a solid scribal education, as did Ashurbanipal much later, literacy was not a requirement for the exercise of kingship. While in previous centuries most scribes, except for the purposes of bureaucratic responsibility, remained anonymous, from the Neo-Babylonian period onward, scribes wrote their names and pedigree on the tablets they copied or composed. From such “colophons,” it appears that many came from scribal families who had practiced the arts of writing for generations. One of the most famous of these scribal ancestors was Sin-leqqe-unninni, the reputed author of the Gilgamesh epic.
   See also LEXICAL LISTS.

Historical Dictionary of Mesopotamia. . 2012.

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