Article ID: CBB001420903

Reading Colophons from Mesopotamian Clay-Tablets Dealing with Mathematics (2012)


In the first millennium BCE Mesopotamian scribes used to add highly developed colophons to their works, especially when writing scholarly texts, for example, on medicine, divination or astral sciences. This kind of postscript, often located at the end of the text, provides modern historians with a plethora of information relative to the scribe who wrote the text, the place where he composed it, the content of the composition, the original document copied (if any), and the owner of the tablet. Other writing practices are particularly remarkable, such as noting long compositions on series of dozens of numbered tablets, in the same way as we number the pages of a book. These practices reflect a very specific context of that time: that of the creation, enrichment, management and maintenance of large libraries. Organization into series, the presence of colophons, as well as the existence of catalogues, are considered as the three criteria for determining that a set of documents comes from a library (Clancier 2009: 13).1 In the Old Babylonian period (circa 2000--1600), colophons were not widespread, at least as far as we can judge from surviving documents. However, they are attested in some specific contexts to be analysed in detail. In this article I will focus on colophons found in Old Babylonian mathematical texts. I do not intend to inventory and describe all these colophons, but rather to analyze the relationship between the colophons and other features of the documents in which they appear.2 Indeed, such a relationship may provide some answers to important questions concerning the mathematical practices in the Old Babylonian period: To whom were the texts addressed and what was their purpose? In secondary literature, the answer to these questions is generally that the mathematical cuneiform texts reflect teaching practices developed in the scribal schools. Nonetheless, I will show that the practices involved may have been more diverse.

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Authors & Contributors
Robson, Eleanor
Clark, Kathleen M.
Yusta, Piedad
Proust, Christine
Verderame, Lorenzo
Muroi, Kazuo
Sciamvs: Sources and Commentaries in Exact Sciences
British Society for the History of Mathematics Bulletin
Historia Scientiarum: International Journal of the History of Science Society of Japan
Revue d'Histoire des Mathématiques
Theoria (0495-4548)
Institut Français d'Études Anatoliennes Georges-Dumezil
Institut für Orientalistik der Universität Wien
Springer International Publishing
Tablets; papyri
Cuneiform inscriptions
Science education and teaching
Artaxerxes I, King of Persia (d. 424-5 BC)
Time Periods
21st century
Middle and Near East
Babylon (extinct city)
United States
Persia (Iran)
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

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