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Back to School in Sumer

Author John Cech
Air Date 8/28/2003

Back to School in Sumer Transcript

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You’re hearing Janet Smith’s recreation of some of the oldest music in the west, from ancient Sumeria, in what is now called Iraq. This piece, “The Music Lesson,” uses a replica of the silver lyre from the ancient city of Ur, and in it Ms. Smith imagines how young people may have learned to play music nearly 5,000 years ago.

We do know that young scholars in Sumeria, the place where Western Civilization begins, had to practice their writing on rounded clay tablets, about the size of the palm of your hand. The teacher would draw two lines on the upper part of this thick little pancake, on which he wrote the lesson for the day, in a wedge-shaped style of writing called cuneiform, that was pressed into the wet clay with a sharp, wooden stylus. Underneath his words, about baskets and oxen and wheat , he drew two other lines on which the student was to mirror the teacher’s writing. These first schools were for boys from prosperous families who were destined for greatness as civic and religious leaders, and as businessmen in those first cities. Writing was invented for record-keeping, not only for lists of transactions but also for the lists of kings that ruled the cities, including the famous Gilgamesh, who gave us our earliest great story in the West, written in clay by scribes who had mastered their boyhood lessons, baked in the creative heat of the Fertile Crescent.

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Posted in Education