Ancient Archival Practices

Choices made by scribes and by archive owners on how a document was produced, stored and disposed of had an important influence on the preservation and the destruction of an ancient document. These choices are called “archival practices”, and they vary from the selection of the material on which to write to the recycling or the discardment of a record.

Several factors influence which ancient documents are preserved until today and which are not (see article of U. Wijnsma). Roughly, these factors can be divided into accidental and intentional categories. Documents could be destroyed by (accidental) fires and floods, for example, but also by the (intentional) reuse of old tablets. The “intentional” category specifically includes the choices made by scribes during the production of the documents, as well as the choices made by archiveholders during the storing and the discardment of the records. The set of those decisions can be called “archival practices”. Let’s take a look at how these archival practices worked in ancient Babylonia.

1) Production

The first stage of archival practices was the stage of production. During this stage, the scribe of a document made crucial choices regarding the material support and the medium of communication. He needed to decide on what material he was going to write, for example, and which language and script he was going to write with. Both decisions depended on the nature of the text that he wanted to record: legal documents, such as marriage contracts, were usually recorded on clay tablets; while monumental texts, such as royal inscriptions, could be written on stone or precious metal. On top of that, the Babylonian language and the cuneiform script were usually applied to durable materials, such as the clay and stone just mentioned; while the Aramaic language and the alphabetic script were primarily written on perishable materials, such as parchment. In the end, the texts on parchment would be far less likely to survive the tests of time.

2) Storage

The second stage of archival practices involved active record-keeping. During this stage, people decided  on how to store the documents that the scribe had made. If the archive was relatively small, documents could be stored in jars, reed baskets, wooden boxes or simple bags. If the archive was large (such as the archive of a temple institution), the documents could be stored on shelves in particular rooms of a building. Sadly, though, the majority of Neo-Babylonian archives have been illegally or unscientifically excavated. This means that information on the archaeological context of the documents, and therefore their original forms of storage, is largely lacking. See also the article about archives and libraries by I. Dos Santos Martins.

3) Discardment

The final stage of archival practices was the discardment phase. Archives had a limited time-span, after all: at some point, the documents that were stored would lose their value and they would be abandoned or dumped, reused or recycled. Clay tablets could be reused for new texts, for example, or they could be broken into pieces and reused as floor filling. It is also possible that some archives were hidden away for safe-keeping in times of political turmoil – yet never to be retrieved again when their owners were killed or had permanently fled their homes. The enormous number of Neo-Babylonian archives may have been due to just such an event. The fact that these archives consisted of documents on durable materials (cuneiform texts on clay-tablets), were stored collectively, and dumped in one go, has ensured their preservation until today.


  • Backer, H. D. 2003: “Neo-Babylonian record-keeping practices as revealed by the Neo-Babylonian private archival documents”, in M. Brosius (ed.), Ancient Archives and Archival Traditions: Concepts of Record-keeping in the Ancient World (Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents 98), Oxford, 241–263.
  • Clancier, P. 2011: “Cuneiform culture’s last guardians: the old urban nobility of Hellenistic Uruk”, in K. Radner and E. Robson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture, Oxford, 752–773.
  • Pedersén, O. 1998: Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East, 1500-300 B.C., Bethesda.
  • Veenhof, K.R. 1986: “Cuneiform Archives: an Introduction”, in K.R. Veenhof (ed.), Cuneiform Archives and Libraries: Papers read at the 30e Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale Leiden, 4-8 July 1983. Istanbul / Leiden, 1–36.

Author: Ivo Dos Santos Martins
Published on 29 November 2018