Chapter 3. The Scribe

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So into Lycia

he sent him, charged to bear a deadly cipher,

magical marks Proitos engraved and hid

in folded tablets.

(Iliad 6. 168–9, transl. R. Fitzgerald)

This well-known passage from Bellerophon’s story in the Iliad has

often been remarked upon as the only reference which Homer

makes to writing. In his version of the story Proitos, king of Argos

in Greece, sends Bellerophon (whom he wrongly believes to have

seduced his wife) to Lycia in south-western Anatolia with a letter

inscribed on wooden tablets for delivery to the Lycian king, Proitos’

father-in-law. Bellerophon himself is unaware of what the letter says.

In fact it contains his death warrant (which fortunately for him was

never put into effect).

Taken at face value, the episode indicates at least a knowledge

of writing in Homer’s time, the late eighth or early seventh century,

and an assumption that literacy was a feature of the age in which

the Iliad is set, the last century of the Bronze Age by our reckoning.

In fact Homer’s words reflect a typical scenario in Bronze

Age international communications: two kingdoms are linked by

a marriage alliance; the ruler of one, who is the husband of the

other’s daughter, makes a request of his father-in-law; he does so

in a letter written in a language accessible to both parties, though

quite possibly the native language of only one of them, or neither

of them.

Of course a Bronze Age king who is credited with authorship of

a letter is no more its actual writer than a king who claims to have

built a palace is in a literal sense its actual builder. The task of

putting stylus to tablet belongs to a scribe.1 Similarly, the addressee

of the letter is not the person who actually reads it. That is the task

of his scribe, who reads it to him. So how far did literacy extend in

the Late Bronze Age Near East? Who were the literate members

of Late Bronze Age society?

The Extent of Literacy in the Hittite World

Literacy skills were probably acquired by many members of the

higher echelons of Hittite society, particularly if they were destined

for careers in the imperial civil service. Such skills were very likely

learned through a training programme in scribal schools (see

below).We also hear of priests and doctors with scribal skills, and

they too may have received part of their training in such schools.

Persons like these, whose professions required them to have at least

a basic level of literacy, should perhaps be distinguished from a class

of professional, full-time career scribes—though if such a distinction

did exist, it was probably a fairly blurred one. Doctors and priests

sometimes also used the designation ‘scribe’, and career scribes

sometimes occupied high positions in the administration. No doubt

the main difference between the career scribe and other literate

professionals was that the former could be expected to devote all his

working time to scribal activity of one kind or another, and his training

was for this end rather than as a prerequisite for something else.

He may well have achieved a higher level of competence than did

‘part-time scribes’ in the complexities of the cuneiform script, the

speed with which he could read and write it, and in the range of

languages which used it.

Yet while literacy in Hittite society almost certainly went beyond

a purely scribal class, it was still confined to a select minority. We

need to bear in mind that near-universal literacy in a society is a comparatively

recent phenomenon. In many earlier societies reading

and writing were specialized skills restricted to a small proportion

of the population, like the skills required for practising medicine or

magic or various other professions, arts, and crafts.A modern society

which operates on the assumption of universal literacy would not be

able to function without it. An ancient society which may have been

highly advanced materially and culturally but was not geared to this

assumption obviously could, and did.

We should also bear in mind the nature of the cuneiform script,the

script most widely used for written records throughout the Bronze

Age Near East. It is a syllabic script, made up of wedge-shaped signs.

That is to say, each group of signs represents a whole syllable, or in

some cases a complete word or concept—what are called logograms.

By contrast alphabetic scripts require a separate symbol for each

individual sound. The advantage of the cuneiform script is that it is

very economical in terms of space required on the writing surface,

and that for one fully trained in its use its signs can be produced on a

tablet with great rapidity—by a series of woodpecker-like jabbing

motions with a wedge-shaped stylus pressed into soft clay at different

angles. Speed was an essential requirement in taking dictation

from the king, recording legal judgements, ritual enactments, and

the like.

But a cuneiform script has a major disadvantage. In contrast to an

alphabet which has only a small number of simply devised symbols

to be learnt (the largest alphabetic script is that of Russian, with

thirty-two symbols),a syllabic script by its very nature requires many

hundreds of signs to ensure that every possible combination of

sounds from which syllables are formed is individually represented.

Thus the cuneiform script used by the Hittites has well over 300

signs (a modest number, in fact, when compared with some other

cuneiform scripts), many of which are made up of numerous little

wedge-shaped formations. In the early learning stages many signs

are easily confused since the distinctions between them are often

very small. Thus unlike an alphabetic script which can be mastered

relatively quickly and easily, a cuneiform script takes some years to

learn and memorize, to the point where it can be read and written

easily, quickly, and accurately. This in itself precluded all but a specially

trained minority from ever acquiring competence, or at least a

high level of competence, in the written language. It seems unlikely

that a prince being schooled in the religious, administrative, and

military tasks which his royal birth required of him could ever have

afforded the time, or indeed have been prepared to submit to the

tedium, that training in the art of reading and writing required.Why

should he indeed when others were employed to do it for him?

The Training of Scribes

Information from Mesopotamian texts indicates the existence of

scribal schools in Mesopotamian societies dating back to the Early

Bronze Age. Generally attached to temples, the schools were designated

in Sumerian by the term eduba, which literally means ‘tablet

house’.2 Very likely similar institutions were established by the

Hittites when writing was introduced into the Hittite world.3 In such

institutions those destined for the scribal profession began their

training from their early years.The training must have been rigorous,

and by its very nature highly repetitive and tedious. Students began

by learning simple syllable signs and word signs, copying them over

and over again until they stuck in the memory, and then moving

on to the more complex signs. If treated like their Mesopotamian

counterparts, they could be subject to harsh discipline, with beatings

administered for laziness, recalcitrance, or incompetence.

Once the basics of the script had been mastered, the student then

progressed to copying, repeatedly, religious texts and great literary

classics like the epic of Gilgamesh. Fragments of Hittite,Akkadian,

and Hurrian versions of the epic have been found in Hattusa’s

archives.The exercise may have been intended primarily as a means

of mastering the complex script in which the classics were recorded,

but it also served to provide the budding scribe with an education in

many of the cultural traditions of his society. No doubt too the scribal

schools were one of the means by which these traditions were transmitted

to the wider community. Sometimes the scribes adapted them

for local tastes.Thus in the Hittite version of the Gilgamesh epic, the

passages dealing with Gilgamesh’s city of Uruk were much reduced,

no doubt with the interests of an Anatolian audience in mind. And

it may well be that in translating the now lost Hurrian original of

the Kumarbi song cycle into Hittite, the scribes substantially edited

the composition, to ensure its theological and cultural appropriateness

within the context of the religious reform programme of the

thirteenth century. In general terms, the scribal schools must have

served as powerful agents in the dissemination of cultural traditions

throughout the Near Eastern civilizations from the Sumerian period


The cuneiform script may have been introduced into the Land of

Hatti by Babylonian scribes hired or abducted during the course of

early Hittite military campaigns, beginning with Hattusili I’s Syrian

expeditions and culminating in the destruction of Babylon by his

successor Mursili I (c.1595). Very likely these scribes were instrumental

in establishing a local scribal profession by setting up training

institutions along the lines of the Old Babylonian model—though as

yet we have no direct evidence of such institutions. Training in the

art of literacy also involved instruction in the Akkadian and, to a

much lesser extent, Sumerian language. Initially the texts in these

languages provided the young Hittite scholar with the only ‘textbooks’

for learning the cuneiform script. Bilingual syllabaries and

lexical lists (in Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hittite) found at Hattusa

also belong within this context. Through such means the scribe

acquired a knowledge of the Akkadian language at the same time as

he developed competence in the script which expressed it, as well as

in the religious and literary traditions which the script recorded.

From a political viewpoint his bilingual skills were of enormous

value in the Hittite world as the kings of this world increasingly

extended their political and diplomatic links throughout the Near

East—for Akkadian became the international lingua franca of the

age. However, while Akkadian may have been the language primarily

used to introduce literacy into the Hittite world, the

cuneiform script was quickly adapted to the task of recording texts in

Nesite, that is, in the Hittite language, since very likely the first major

documents of the Hittite kingdom were composed in this language.

The Employment of Scribes

We have commented that scribal training must have been a long and

often tedious process, particularly for those destined to become

career scribes. But persistence and application eventually paid off.

The profession for which it prepared its pupils was an important and

honoured one. For those who reached the top of the profession it

offered the prospect of a distinguished career, sometimes at the very

highest levels of Hittite society. (We shall have more to say about this

below.) On a number of occasions sons followed their fathers into

the profession, and indeed there may have been some degree of

exclusivity attached to it. Perhaps something approaching a professional

caste.There were also on occasion certain privileges attached

to being a scribe, such as exemption from taxes and levies.

Even so,demand may well have exceeded supply. In the thirteenth

century some fifty-two scribes (including thirty-three scribes of the

wooden tablets) were attached to the service of the Great Temple

in Hattusa, making up just over a quarter of the temple’s total cult

personnel.5 The kingdom’s numerous other temples must also have

employed a high proportion of scribes amongst their personnel.And

there was undoubtedly an ever-increasing demand for well trained

scribes to serve in the king’s administration as the empire grew in

size and complexity. Given the copious records which the Hittites

kept of a wide range of activities, and given that literacy in the Hittite

world was largely confined to a professional scribal class, it is difficult

to imagine any major activity which did not require the involvement

of scribes, sometimes in a substantial capacity. On a routine level

scribes were employed on the ongoing task of making copies, sometimes

multiple copies,of important documents like international and

vassal treaties, and correspondence with foreign kings, vassal rulers,

and regional governors. Scribes were required for recording royal

decrees, land-grants, legal pronouncements,and judgements handed

down in lawsuits.

The often long and complex prayers which a king or queen offered

up to a deity, sometimes daily, were in many cases read out on their

behalf by a scribe, thus avoiding the need for His or Her Majesty to

learn them by heart, or the risk of causing divine offence by inadvertently

leaving something out.The royal worshipper need not even be

present when the prayer was uttered. The daily prayer of King

Mursili II to the god Telipinu begins with the words:‘The scribe reads

this tablet addressing the deity daily; he praises the deity (saying):

Telipinu, you are a mighty and noble deity. Mursili, the king,

your servant, and the queen, your handmaid, have sent me (with

the request): “Go! entreat Telipinu, our Lord, the guardian of our

persons!” ’6 There is no doubt that a number of prayers were quite

literally compositions of the king himself. In such cases, a scribe was

at hand to take down the king’s words as he uttered them. Thus the

colophon to Muwatalli’s prayer to the Storm God of Kummanni7

states that the prayer was ‘written down from the mouth of His

Majesty’ by a Junior Incantation Priest called Lurma. It is interesting

to compare the two surviving copies of this prayer. One of them,

‘copy B’, shows signs of having been written down very rapidly—

signs unfinished, dislocated words, misunderstanding of what was

dictated etc.—whereas in ‘copy A’ many of the original mistakes

have been rectified. It looks, then, as if ‘B’ really was written down

verbatim,by a relatively junior scribe who had yet to master fully the

art of taking dictation. Subsequently his hastily composed document

was revised at leisure, producing ‘copy A’.8

Scribes must also have been heavily involved in the preparations

for the numerous festivals which occupied a considerable part of the

Hittite year (see Chapter 11). The extensive organization which

these entailed, including the collection of all the ritual paraphernalia,

the gathering of suitable animals for sacrifice,the organizing of

the musicians and other entertainers, the collection of all the foodstuffs

required for the festival banquets, necessitated the services of

those who could consult the relevant manuals in order to advise on

what was required, to ensure that nothing was omitted in the festival

preparations and in its actual performance, and to check off each

item as it was attended to. It was essential that each stage in the

festival was carried out meticulously; even the slightest error could

invalidate the whole procedure and provoke divine wrath.

Scribes must also have accompanied the king on his military campaigns.

During the course of a campaign, the king needed an effective

messenger system, to enable him to keep in touch with events

in the homeland, and to communicate from a distance with his allies

or his enemies if and when the need arose. Communications were

sometimes received and delivered orally. But while on the march

the king also sent off written dispatches—instructions to his subordinates,

threats and ultimatums to his enemies. His campaign staff

must have included a number of scribes, on hand to write his dispatches

and to read to him any messages delivered to him in writing.

An instance of the former is the written ultimatum which King

Hattusili III sent to the renegade Piyamaradu, in an attempt to reach

a settlement with his rebel subject while he (Hattusili) was advancing

with his army against him.9 He needed a scribe to write the document

at his dictation, and perhaps also to deliver it in person and

read it to Piyamaradu—particularly if the latter had no scribe of

his own to perform this service; Piyamaradu’s messages in reply to

Hattusili’s dispatches were apparently delivered orally.The services

of scribes on the campaign staff must also have been required for

keeping records of the enormous logistical operations involved in

the transportation of thousands of men, women, children, and livestock

back to the homeland in the wake of conquest. The numbers

of prisoners-of-war recorded in the Annals of King Mursili II (for

example) suggest that precise tallies were made and recorded (just

as in Egyptian reliefs scribes are depicted recording the number of

enemy slain on the battlefield),probably both at the beginning of the

journey and at its end when the prisoners were allocated to various

areas and to various jobs within the homeland. Scribes were the

obvious officials to undertake such a task.

There is also the more general matter of the employment of

scribes in the regions and communities subject to Hittite overlordship.

The recently discovered cuneiform archives at (modern)

Mas¸at, Kus¸aklı, and Ortaköy in central Anatolia provide information

about the day-to-day administration of the homeland’s regional

centres and the small scribal staff in each of these centres.We have

discussed the tablet records found at Mas¸at in Chapter 1. Ortaköy,

probably to be identified with Hittite Sapinuwa, was another important

regional centre of the kingdom.10 More than 3,000 tablets were

unearthed from the site. Their contents include letters exchanged

between the king and his officials, inventories, divination texts, and

other texts of a religious character. Many of the local scribes had presumably

been trained in the scribal schools in the capital, and then

perhaps early in their career sent out for a period to serve on the staff

of a regional governor.

However, some of the scribes at Mas¸at seem to have been

imported from Syria or Mesopotamia, to judge from their Akkadian

names11—perhaps an indication that at least in the period of the

Mas¸at archive the demand for scribes in the kingdom exceeded the

supply from the local scribal schools. Further afield,scribes of Hittite

origin may have been sent by the Hattusa administration as

appointees to the courts of vassal rulers, particularly in the west. As

yet no tablet archives have come to light in western Anatolia.But the

written communications attested by the Hattusa archives with the

vassal states in this region, communications particularly in the form

of letters and treaties, clearly indicate the presence of scribes in the

vassal courts. These men could read to the local ruler documents

dispatched from Hattusa, and put in writing the vassal’s response,

when one was required, and any other matters where written communication

was appropriate.

While communications with other parts of the empire or with

foreign kings were written in Akkadian, the international language

of diplomacy, those with the western vassal states were almost

certainly written in Hittite. That at least was the language used in

the copies of such communications kept for reference purposes in

the capital’s archives, and it seems most likely that the originals were

in Hittite as well. Since Luwian was the primary language of the

western subject states and was closely related to Hittite (both were

Indo-European languages), the latter would have been much more

easily mastered by native Luwian speakers than the Semitic

Akkadian language. Indeed, in a letter sent to the pharaoh Amenhotep

III by a king of Arzawa,the postscript contains a request from

the scribe that all future correspondence be conducted in Hittite

 (that is, not in Akkadian): ‘You, scribe, write well to me; put down,

moreover,your name.The tablets that are brought here always write

in Hittite!’12 If scribes from the Luwian-speaking Arzawan countries

had difficulty with Akkadian,or at least were more comfortable with

Hittite, then the latter was obviously the appropriate language for

communications between the Hittite king and his western vassals.

But the explanation for the use of Hittite may simply be that in the

absence of, or in preference to, local Luwian-speaking scribes,

the king dispatched some of his own scribes to take up residence in

the vassal courts. There would obviously have been no need for a

king to write to his western vassals in any language other than Hittite

if the western scribes came from Hattusa in the first place. (Of course

they would also have needed to be competent in the local Luwian

language, to enable them to act as interpreters, if necessary, between

their sovereign lord and his vassal subjects.) Besides, a Hittite scribe

resident in the local vassal court could have other uses. Given the

regular concern expressed by Hittite kings in their treaties that they

be forewarned as early as possible of any untoward political developments

in their vassal states, particularly in the west, a scribe in the

region whose first loyalty was to Hattusa might well serve as a valuable

source of information on local conditions. Also noteworthy is

the fact that in the one substantial piece of correspondence we have

between a Hittite and an Ahhiyawan king, the ‘Tawagalawa letter’

referred to above, the language used is Hittite.We shall return later

to the possible implications of this.13

The Tablet Archives

The scribal profession covered a wide range of skills, tasks, and

responsibilities. Novices fresh from the training school were no

doubt given the most menial and most mechanical tasks, including

the routine copying and recopying of hundreds of tablets, for storing

in the capital’s archives,14 or in the case of multiple copies for distribution

in a number of locations. In the capital alone tablets were discovered

in many locations. These included several buildings on the

acropolis (A,D, E, and K), a number of houses, and rooms used for

tablet storage in the city’s temples.15 The records found on temple

sites deal with matters relating to each temple’s cultic and administrative

activities, including the management of its land-holdings

outside the city. The great Temple of the Storm God in the Lower

City was the chief repository for state treaties, because (as we know

from information supplied by the texts) their provisions were sacrosanct

and under special divine supervision. The building commonly

known as ‘The House on the Slope’ was apparently reserved for

works of a scholarly literary nature. A scribal school may have been

located here.

Tablets came to light in a number of other locations as well, sometimes

totally out of their original context. Indeed it is often very

difficult to make any general determination about the original

arrangement and location of these documents.This is due to various

factors, not least of which was the failure to record precise findspots

when the tablets began coming to light during the German excavations

early in the twentieth century. But this aside, there must have

been major disruptions to the capital’s archives on several occasions

during its history—when Hattusa was sacked in the early fourteenth

century, in the course of the capital’s relocation to Tarhuntassa in the

late fourteenth or early thirteenth century, in the course of conflicts

in Hattusa between the opposing forces of Hattusili and Urhi-

Teshub, and perhaps most of all during the major redevelopment of

Hattusa in its final years. In this last period, many tablets may have

been stored in temporary locations—where they still remained at

the capital’s end—and many others may simply have been dumped

when they were of no further use. The most dramatic instance of a

tablet found out of context is the famous bronze tablet discovered in

1986 under a pavement near Hattusa’s Sphinx Gate.16 It was almost

certainly buried there deliberately, to ensure that it would never be

seen again.

We do know that considerable care was taken with the initial

storage of tablets which contained valuable records to be retained

for future reference and consultation. It was obviously important

to ensure their easy retrieval, when required, from the thousands

of written records distributed throughout the capital’s tablet repositories.

As far as we can determine, the tablets were arranged

on wooden shelves supported by rows of stone pillars. This in fact

helped ensure their survival. When fire penetrated the archive

rooms during the capital’s final destruction, the shelves collapsed

and the unbaked tablets crashed upon the floor. Though often

shattered into many fragments, they were baked in the intense heat

generated by the burning timber, and thus preserved for all time.

Each shelf’s contents were indicated by lists in the form of small clay

tablets, which also indicated if there were any gaps in a particular

series: ‘Two tablets relating to the offering of substitutes to the Sun

Goddess of the Earth by the king, the queen, and the princes. First

tablet missing.’ ‘Third tablet of the spring festival at Hurma. How the

lord celebrates festivals at Hurma. First and last tablets missing.’17

Sometimes the contents of a particular tablet were indicated by a

brief statement at the end, in what is known as the colophon. Thus

Hattusili I’s Testament concludes with the words:‘(This is) the tablet

of Tabarna, the Great King:when the Great King, the Tabarna, fell ill

at Kussara and appointed the young Mursili for the succession.’ We

can imagine that a number of scribes were employed largely if not

exclusively on the task of maintaining the tablet collections, and

storing and retrieving particular documents as required, no doubt

bringing to the job the same degree of dedication and pride—and

possessiveness—as many of their modern counterparts.

Upward Mobility in the Scribal Profession

A hierarchy within the profession offered prospects of career

advancement commensurate,presumably,with the upwardly mobile

scribe’s ability, experience, and seniority. Although we have no

clear picture of different stages in the career progression, there are,

however, indications of the career path of a number of scribes, like

Angulli,son of Palla, pupil of Anuwanza,who appears as an ordinary

scribe in a couple of documents and later becomes chief of the scribal

school.18 Information of this kind is available to us from the scribe’s

frequent habit of recording his name at the end of the document

which has been dictated to him. Thus: ‘The hand of Hapati-urmah,

son of Tuwattaziti, in the presence of Anuwanza, the chief, has

written (it).’19The scribe’s name is probably appended in such cases

for future reference, just as a modern business letter is often referenced

by inserting the name of the secretary who actually typed it. In

this case we also have the name of the dictator of the document,

Anuwanza, chief of the scribal school.

It was in fact possible for a scribe to reach the most exalted levels

of the Hittite administration—as reflected in the office of the

gal.dub.sar.mesˇ ,‘Chief of the Scribes’.The importance of this man,

the head of the Hittite chancellery, is indicated by his ranking next to

the royal couple and the crown prince in the lists of beneficiaries of

gifts from vassal rulers. He is also sometimes given the honorary title

dumu.lugal, ‘son of the king’, a title which, we have noted, was

conferred upon a number of distinguished officials who were not

actually related by blood to the royal family. Moreover, one of the

chief scribes, Mittannamuwa, was appointed by King Muwatalli II

as the administrator of Hattusa when the royal seat was transferred

to Tarhuntassa.20

Scribal Influence in the Kingdom

We can hardly overestimate the power and influence which the

Chief of the Scribes and indeed other high-ranking members of the

scribal hierarchy must have exercised within the kingdom. These

men were amongst the king’s closest confidants and advisers. Their

positions could not have failed to give them considerable influence

in the king’s dealings with his vassal rulers and with foreign kings,

for no doubt it was they who drafted the treaties which the king contracted

with vassal and foreign rulers—documents of fundamental

importance to the maintenance of Hittite influence and authority in

the Near East.

We have drafts, often fragmentary, of a number of treaties, and

final versions of others. Particularly from the surviving drafts,we can

piece together something of the process involved in the composition

of a treaty. It was probably along the following lines:A new ruler has

been set up on a vassal throne,his elevation due to the death or deposition

of his predecessor. In Hattusa the king’s scribe carries out

some research on the history of the vassal kingdom and on other pertinent

facts preserved on tablets in the foreign office department of

the state archives. From the archives in the Temple of the Storm God

he retrieves copies of treaties with former rulers of the kingdom. He

may also retrieve from other locations copies of correspondence

with them. Together with information relating to the current situation

in the kingdom, this material provides the basis for a draft treaty

which the scribe draws up, perhaps after initial consultation with the

king. Standard clauses and formulas relating to vassal’s and overlord’s

obligations to each other, and to the conditions under which

these obligations will become null and void, provide a template for

the treaty.The scribe adds a long list of the deities of both the homeland

and the vassal state who will serve as witnesses to the pact

between overlord and vassal. Then he includes a series of clauses

referring to the blessings or the curses that will follow respectively

from the vassal’s observance or violation of the treaty’s provisions.

Specific provisions contained in treaties with earlier rulers of the

kingdom are incorporated into the new treaty, if still of relevance.

The scribe may also include tentative new provisions relating, for

example, to newly defined territorial boundaries.

On completion, the draft is read out to the king. As he listens,

the king dictates various emendations or additions, which the scribe

notes in the margins of the draft. Or he requires some words or

phrases to be deleted as irrelevant or out of date.The scribe crosses

them out in his draft. Obviously the draft tablet would have to be soft

when the corrections were made, before the clay had dried and hardened.

It may thus have been brought to the king for his consideration

shortly after its completion. If there were some delay before he was

able to deal with the matter, the tablet could still have been kept soft,

and even re-softened if necessary, by wrapping it in damp cloths.

There is discussion over a suitable preamble to the treaty. On the

basis of information from the archives, the preamble may be used to

stress the loyalty of the vassal king’s predecessors as a model for his

own behaviour. (Any past actions which contradict this can be conveniently

ignored.) On the other hand if a vassal’s predecessors have

behaved contrary to their overlord’s interests, a reminder of their

fate and of the king’s beneficence to the vassal throne’s present

incumbent may serve as a useful introduction to the treaty. A final

version of the treaty is then produced by the scribe. After the king

has heard it and approved it, the scribe arranges for it to be inscribed

on metal—gold, silver, or bronze—validated with the king’s personal

seal and also the seal of his contracting partner. A number of

copies of the treaty are made, under the scribe’s supervision, the

number often being recorded in the colophon to the treaty.

Without doubt the highest-ranking scribes of the kingdom played

a major role in the kingdom’s diplomatic activities. The qualities

which they brought to their office must have included a high degree

of political astuteness, and considerable knowledge of and sensitivity

to local conditions and political issues in the various regions over

which their sovereign held sway.They may also have played no small

role in negotiations between the king and his royal counterparts.

Mastery of the appropriate diplomatic and legal forms of expression

was essential for the higher order of scribes. Many clauses in the

treaties clearly reflect authorship, or at least considerable input, by

a person well versed in legal terminology. So too scribes were

employed in drawing up protocols, legal contracts, and the many

land-grants which the king bestowed on favoured subjects.The precisely

specified terms and conditions of the land-grant documents

again clearly reflect their drafting by a legal expert. Scribes too had

the task of reviewing and redrafting laws, recording court decisions,

and very likely acting as advisers on legal matters to the king and

others invested with judicial authority prior to judgements being

handed down. We know that in Mesopotamia the scribal school

curriculum included the learning of thousands of Sumerian and

Akkadian legal terms and formulas,21 and very likely the training of

Hittite scribes at an advanced level contained a similar requirement.

Specialization in Scribal Activity

Within the scribal hierarchy, we are unaware of what degree of

specialization operated at each level. We do know that scribes

who reached the more elevated levels of their profession employed

others to take dictation for them. Thus Mahhuzzi, who had risen to

the status of chief of scribes, dictated to Duda the protocol of King

Tudhaliya IV.22Was Duda employed purely to take dictation? And

were there scribes employed purely as copyists, or did they have a

broader range of functions? Were other scribes employed purely as

archivists, responsible for cataloguing, shelving, maintaining, and

retrieving when required the documents housed in the capital’s

tablet repositories?

As yet we cannot give firm answers to these questions. But that

there was some degree of specialization in the scribal profession is

suggested by the term ‘Scribe of the Wooden Tablets’. From this title

(and from other references) we know that wood as well as clay and

metal was used as a writing medium in the Hittite world, and used

commonly enough to have a specially designated scribe in charge

of tablets of this material. For what purposes were wooden tablets

used? Not surprisingly, given the perishable nature of the material,

no such tablets have survived from the Hittite world. However, the

discovery of a folding wooden tablet in the Late Bronze Age Ulu

Burun shipwreck off the Lycian coast near Kas¸, with ivory hinges

and still bearing traces of wax, probably provides a good indication

of what the tablets looked like. Indeed Homer’s description of the

wooden tablets which Bellerophon took to Lycia accords very

closely with the Ulu Burun find.23

A significant feature of the tablets with their wax-coated surface

was that they could be used repeatedly, by smoothing over the wax

surface and thus erasing an earlier inscription to make way for a new

one.This suggests that the wooden tablets were used for purely temporary

records—information which could be deleted after a period

of time when no longer applicable, or raw data which was gathered,

for example by government officials, for subsequent incorporation

in a permanent record. (Conceivably the statistics relating to transportees

and captured livestock were first recorded in this form, as

also perhaps details of a farmer’s produce for taxation purposes.)

That is to say, wooden tablets may have served much the same function

as modern notebooks. But they apparently served other purposes

as well. Hoffner notes their use, particularly in Kizzuwadna,

to record the traditional rites accorded to the gods in festivals and

rituals.24 It is also possible that they were in some cases used for

letters, or at least for written messages. Indeed that was the function

of Bellerophon’s wooden tablets. In Roman times such tablets were

regularly used for this purpose. It may be, then, that amongst their

other uses wooden tablets in the Hittite world served to convey

informal letters or messages, with the possible advantage that after

reading the message the recipient could erase it and inscribe a

response on the same tablet.

All this of course is largely speculation. Until we have a better

knowledge of what exactly the Hittites used their wooden tablets

for, we are at a loss to explain why the Hittite chancellery saw fit to

assign them a bureaucratic category of their own, with a scribe or

scribes in charge.

On a Personal Note

A personal touch is added to a number of formal letters by the

scribes’ occasional habit of appending little messages to each

other—at the very end of the letter. One scribe asks his counterpart

in the recipient court to tell him his name in his next letter, and in

future to write in Hittite (that is, not in Akkadian!), another asks

after his counterpart’s health. Others, writing from Mas¸at, ask the

recipient scribes in Hattusa to check up on their families and belongings

in the capital.25 (This, incidentally, provides a good indication

that scribes from Hattusa were expected to serve for a period on a

provincial governor’s staff, apparently leaving their families behind,

before being allowed to continue their profession in the capital.)

Whether or not their superiors approved of or condoned this

exchange of notes is something we do not know. The likelihood is

that they were unaware of the practice.There was really no need for

a scribe to inform his master of what was after all a quite harmless

custom, even if it does sometimes have the effect for the modern

reader of adding a touch of bathos to a document otherwise written

in a formal and, to us, sometimes pompous style.