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date: 17 May 2022

(p. 225) Experts and Novices

An influential model for describing the transition from novice to expert maps out five stages of skills acquisition, via advanced beginner status, competence, and proficiency (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1980; Dreyfus 2004). The process entails several cognitive shifts, from strict adherence to rules and lack of independent discretion and judgement, to a deep and contextualized intuitive understanding that is heavily dependent on tacit (unverbalizable) knowledge (cf. Collins 1974: 167–168).

However, that move is not simply a matter of developing competence and confidence: although at one level learning often comprises a relationship between a single student and a single master, at another level it involves a much larger number of people. Through apprenticeship (whether formal or informal) one becomes part of a group, a ‘community of practice’, whose members collectively engage in a particular activity with shared interests and resources (Wenger 1998). At first the novice is metaphorically on the edge of the community, looking in. Through gains in competence, confidence, and social acceptance, the learner moves from the periphery towards the centre of the practice community, in due course becoming accepted as a fully fledged expert. In doing so, the novice inculcates not only the necessary technical skills but also the beliefs, standards, and behaviours of the group (Lave and Wenger 1991). Interestingly, ethnographic studies of contemporary communities of practice have consistently shown that this ‘situated learning’ is far more effective than traditional classroom education. The latter tends to place too much emphasis on rule-following and thus inhibits the development of expertise, as characterized by the Dreyfus model (e.g. Nunes, Dias, and Carraher 1993).

(p. 226) In this view, cuneiform scribes and scholars most certainly formed communities of practice in which students and apprentices made the transition from novice (Akkadian agašgû, šamallû, tarbûtu, etc.) to expert (Akkadian ummânu). In Chapter 11, Yoram Cohen and Sivan Kedar explore learner–teacher relationships in two different ways. The first half of the chapter focuses on two groups of novice diviners, trained in different traditions, in late second-millennium Emar. Induction into the discipline could also involve disciplining in another sense, as the sources suggest. The second half of the chapter examines common structures in Neo-Babylonian apprenticeship contracts to explore the three-way relationship between student, master, and family or owner. There is one learner group for whom it is difficult to imagine a community of practice, however: the crown prince, or trainee king, who by definition had no peer group—although at least he had a role model in the person of the ruling king. Silvie Zamazalová in Chapter 15 looks at the education given to crown princes in the Neo-Assyrian period and compares it with that provided for other members of the royal family.

Thus the journey from novice to expert was not simply a family affair: one teacher came from far afield to teach the diviners of Emar, Neo-Assyrian crown princes had non-royal tutors, Neo-Babylonian youths were sent away to be apprenticed—and in 17th-century Sippar a chief lamenter brought a peripatetic scribe to the house to educate his heir, the future Ur-Utu. As Michel Tanret shows in Chapter 13, Ur-Utu's inheritance of his father's title, wealth, and status did not bring unalloyed happiness. The role itself was stressful, while other family members were jealous of their father's perceived favouritism towards him.

Envy and rivalry also feature in the life stories of two other experts, both with positions at the royal court of Mari in the 1770s and 1760s bc. Asqudum, senior diviner and royal in-law, faced opposition and intrigue upon his appointment but was soon entrusted with many important affairs of state. In Chapter 12, Dominique Charpin traces Asqudum's career and asks whether it was his professional expertise or high social status that brought him such success. While Asqudum had the complete trust of his royal patron, the chief court musician Rišiya suffered a great deal of obstruction and criticism, both from within the royal family and without. Nele Ziegler uses Chapter 14 to present a case study of Rišiya's career and then to look at the education, employment, and social situations of other professional musicians.

Elsewhere in the book, Eckart Frahm considers the ideal of the learned king in Chapter 24, while in Chapter 4 Niek Veldhuis examines how scholarly training in cuneiform literacy entailed the acquisition of both technical skills and scribal identity. As Geert De Breucker shows in Chapter 30, the Hellenistic historian Berossos moved comfortably between two intellectual worlds, being just as adept in the conventions of Greek history as he was with its age-old Mesopotamian counterpart. Other literate communities of practice are explored by Michael Jursa, Steve Tinney, Mark Weeden, and Philippe Clancier in Chapters 9, 27, 28, and 35 respectively.

(p. 227) Further reading

There is a big literature on scribal training in cuneiform, much of it cited frequently throughout this volume, although Petra Gesche's (2001) ground-breaking study of Neo-Babylonian elementary education deserves special mention as perhaps underrepresented here. The classic article on scribes as experts is Oppenheim (1975). Visicato (2000) studies scribes as a social and professional group over a 400-year period of the third millennium. Westbrook (2005) is an important study of the phenomenon of patronage in ancient Near Eastern societies, while Zaccagnini (1983) discusses the mobility of experts across the region. Wiggermann (2008) presents one particularly interesting case, of a Babylonian scholar in 14th-century Assur.


Collins, H.M. 1974. ‘The TEA set: tacit knowledge and scientific networks’, Science Studies 4: 165–85.Find this resource:

Dreyfus, S.E. 2004. ‘A five-stage model of adult skill acquisition’, Bulletin of Science, Technology, and Society 24: 177–81.Find this resource:

Dreyfus, S.E. and Dreyfus, H.L. 1980. ‘A five-stage model of the mental activities involved in directed skill acquisition’, unpublished report for the US Air Force, University of California, Berkeley.Find this resource:

Gesche, P. 2001. Schulunterricht in Babylonien im ersten Jahrtausend v. Chr., Alter Orient und Altes Testament 275. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag.Find this resource:

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Nunes, T., Dias, A., and Carraher, D. 1993. Street Mathematics and School Mathematics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Oppenheim, A.L. 1975. ‘The position of the intellectual in ancient Mesopotamian society’, Daedalus 104: 37–46.Find this resource:

Visicato, G. 2000. The Power and the Writing: the Early Scribes of Mesopotamia. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.Find this resource:

Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Westbrook, R. 2005. ‘Patronage in the ancient Near East’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 48: 210–33; reprinted in B. Wells and F.R. Magdalene (eds.), Law from the Tigris to the Tiber: the Writings of Raymond Westbrook, vol. 1: The Shared Tradition. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, pp. 217–243.Find this resource:

Wiggermann, F.A.M. 2008. ‘A Babylonian scholar in Assur’ in R. van der Spek (ed.), Studies in Ancient Near Eastern World View and Society Presented to Marten Stol on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press, 203–34.Find this resource:

Zaccagnini, C. 1983. ‘Patterns of mobility amongst ancient Near Eastern craftsmen’, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 42: 245–64.Find this resource: