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The Beginnings of Libraries: 1600s-1400s BCE

Let's explore the development of more sophisticated archives and libraries.

Around 1430BCE marks the beginning of the Hittite empire that ruled for 300 years.

Hittite Empire Wikimedia Commons PDRemains from this time period clearly show structures devoted to archives and/or libraries. In addition, the collections are growing in size. Collections were expanded through creation by scribes as well as through acquisitions made during military conquests.

With increasingly large collections, the need for a catalog becomes more important. Going beyond a simple listing of items, catalogs begin to provide additional information about items as well as shelving information.

Hattusas Palace Archives
Hattusa, Turkey

Although Hattusa was an Assyrian trading point for Mesopotamia between 1900 BCE and 1700 BCE, major development of the Hittite group in this area occurred between 1650-1350 BCE. The palace archives contained thousands of clay tablets. Using cuneiform writing, the collection includes correspondence, contracts, legal codes, ceremonies, prophecies, and literature.

Although known as an archives, some have identified the building as a library. The main structure is 32 meters long and the ground floor contained storage rooms. Most of the more than 3000 clay tablets were found in the three southern rooms. They stood on end like modern books on wooden shelves along the wall.

The letter A in the map below shows the location of the archives/library.

Map from

Colophon in Tablets

Istanbul Archarological Museum Some of the tablets contain a colophon. A colophon is similar to the title page of today's books. In the case of tablets, it's inscribed on the back surface.

The tablet on the right from the Istanbul Archaeological Museum contains the Qadesh treaty between the Hittites and the Egyptians around 1269 BCE. Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto, May 28, 2006.

According to Casson (2001, 5), "each colophon begins with the number of the tablet it is on. This was of vital importance, for, though the scribes wrote on both faces of the tablet, and often write very small, many works required more than one, even as works today require more than one page. But tablets, unlike pages, could not be bound; the best that could be done was to keep them together, either in stacks on top of each other or on edge alongside each other, both of which arrangements left ample opportunity for individual tablets to get misplaced or lost... Not all tablets had colophons. Where they were present, they unquestionably were of great help to users of a collection: a glance at a colophon immediately revealed a tablet's contents and the part of the work it represented".

Casson (2001, 5) provided a number of examples of colophon:

"Eighth tablet of the Dupaduparsa Festival, words of Silalluhi and Kuwatalla, the template-priestess. Written by the hand of Lu, son of Nugissar, in the presence of Anuwanza, the overseer.

Third tablet of Kuwatalla, the temple-priestess. Not the end. "When I treat a man according to the great ritual" [i.e., the first line used as title].

Second tablet of Tudhaliyas, the great king, on the oath. End. This tablet was damaged; in the presence of Mahhuzi and Halwalu, I, Duda, restored it."

Collection Catalogues

Apologie de Hattusili III Wikimedia Commons Edouward d"ErasmeThousands of tablets like the one on the left (photographed by Edouard d'Erasme) were found in the archives. Keeping track of a large collection would be an enormous task for early archivists.

The catalogues of 1300 BCE were becoming more sophisticated containing detailed bibliographic information. According to Casson (2001, 5-6), "each entry begins by giving the number of tablets that made up the work being recorded, just as modern catalogues give the number of volumes in a multi-volume publication. Then the entry identifies the work itself by giving the title, which may take the form of citing its first line, or by giving a capsule description of the contents. Then it tells whether the tablet marked the end of the work or not. At times the entry includes the name of the author or authors, or adds other useful information."

A couple examples from Casson (2001, 6) include:

"Three tablets on the spring festival of the city of Hurma. How the presiding official celebrates the festival. First and second tablets missing.

Single chapter. When the singer in the temple of the deity Inar breaks the offering bread he then recites as follows in Hattic. The end."

The catalogues seemed to provide information about shelving for a particular collection. Casson notes that the catalogues were generally related to religion indicating that the users may have been the palace clergy. "Indeed, the subject matter is so consistently of this nature that the sudden appearance, right in the middle of a series of entries about rituals, of one listing a work on a treaty between the king of Hitties and some local ruler may well reflect an ancient instance of mis-shelving!" (Casson, 2001, 7)

Although the catalogue lacked order of entries and locations, it reflects the beginning of procedures for collection organization.

Collection Development

Materials were generally acquired two ways: creation and conquest (Casson, 2001).

Prior to the development of a book trade, collections were created internally. Scribes were trained in how to create copies of tablets. They created collections for themselves, the clergy, and royalty. In addition, scribes were sent out in search of items that could be copied.

In addition, materials were acquired by plundering the collections of those conquered.

The image below shows the Great Temple at Hattusa, Turkey built during the 13th century BCE.

Hattusa Wikimedia Commons PD CC A-SA China_crisis

To learn more, read the optional text Casson (2001, 1-16).


Casson, Lionel (2001). Libraries of the Ancient World. Yale University.


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