The Life of Ancient Egyptians
Administrators and Managers
Wherever sphere of ancient Egyptian activity we examine - on the farms, in the workshops, in army units, temple offices or departments of state - we invariably bump into the ubiquitous scribe, the sesh. He belonged to a well-defined and rather exclusive caste, standing out from the surrounding illiteracy by his command of the secret skills of reading and writing. These qualifications were considered a privilege, and perhaps a mystery, shared only with the rulers and the gods.
Writing things down was only one aspect of the scribe's profession. He was in effect a civil servant of the king, dignitary or temple institution, fully competent in his particular field, equipped for independent thought, decision-making and management. The records he kept enabled him to make judgements designed to bring order into every field, to ensure that things ran smoothly and would continue to do so.
Along with the higher-ranking priests and some of the educated dignitaries, the scribes constituted the intelligentsia of ancient Egypt. They occupied the upper rungs of the social ladder to the very top, and enjoyed due recognition accordingly. We are indebted to their industry in leaving behind a wealth of documentation, from everyday reports to literary texts of high merit.
The scribes were well aware of their status and guarded their professional secrets jealously. Free from physical labor, they had soft hands, clean clothes and minds unencumbered by bodily fatigue. They were the managers who gave orders, checked results, took records, granted or withheld permission. The ordinary Egyptian turned to them for all kinds of help, from drawing up a will or a marriage contract to simply reading and writing letters.
Scribes were usually the sons of scribes and few members of other professions, or even their offspring, managed to penetrate the group. It was perhaps to make his calling even more attractive to his son Pepi, who had just left his birthplace in the Delta to attend the palace school for scribes in the capital, that Khety in the early 12th dynasty wrote his famous Instruction, also known as the Satire on the Trades. Khety paints the dark side of various callings in turn so as to highlight the glory, and the advantages, of his own. For its the most important of all occupations, he says. There is no other like it in the whole country. And above all There's no job without an overseer Except the scribe's: he is the overseer. Hence if you can write, You will be better off Than in those professions I've told you about.
Thus Khety concludes, and Pepi no doubt took it to heart like all the other boys who diligently copied out the instruction on tablets and ostraca in the scribal schools. Other textbooks for aspiring scribes strike a similar note:
It is the scribe who imposes and collects taxes in Upper and Lower Egypt; it is he who keeps account of everything there is. He organizes every unit in the army. He brings city and village delegations before the king and guides each individual at every step. It is he who gives orders to the whole country and keeps watch over all proceedings.
Novices are encouraged in these terms:
Become a scribe so that your limbs remain smooth and your hands soft, and you can wear white and walk like a man of standing whom [even] courtiers will greet.
Is it any surprise that some scribes were so dazzled by the prestige and exclusiveness of their profession that they were inclined to lord it over their fellow-citizens and even to squabble among themselves? Thus in the Papyrus Anastasi I we find the scribe Hori taunting his colleague Amenemope, whose letter he found below standard, with being unable to work out food rations for laborers digging a trench, the right number of bricks for building a ramp, the weight of an obelisk or the number of men it will take to shift it.
The Greeks called the ancient Egyptian picture-writing hieroglyphic', meaning sacred. because when they first arrived in the country and saw it used on tombs and temple walls they assumed it had a secret religious significance. It developed from a system of simplified, carefully stylized pictures of actual objects. The original hieroglyphic symbols, with some new ones added in the course of time, were used in monumental inscriptions throughout the history of ancient Egyptian civilization, and as temple or tomb carvings have lasted for centuries beyond.
Both for everyday records and for extended literary texts, on the other hand, the simplified cursive form or 'hieratic' script was required, in which the original pictures were mostly simplified beyond immediate recognition. This was the form of writing used by scribes from the Old Kingdom up to the 8th century BC, and for religious texts up to the last centuries of the pre-Christian era. Until the Middle Kingdom texts were written in vertical columns from top to bottom, but from the New Kingdom in rows from left to right.
Starting in the 8th century BC the spoken language was recorded in a still more cursive script, called 'demotic' or popular, in which often groups of symbols, now unrecognizably simplified, were merged in quite new complex symbols. phonograms. In the Ptolemaic Period the court used the Greek language and alphabet. It was then that the need for translations arose, as illustrated par excellence by the Memphis Decree of the time of Ptolemy V Epiphanes (196 BC). It was this decree, engraved on a basalt slab in Greek, Egyptian demotic and Egyptian hieroglyphic, that was found by Captain Bouchard, a member of Napoleon's expeditionary staff, near the Delta town Rosetta (Rashid). It enabled Champollion to decipher the hieroglyphic script in 1822.
Laborious carving in stone or engraving on clay tablets, as practiced in ancient Mesopotamia, was unsuitable for either of the cursive scripts. But for these nature provided in Egypt an easily obtainable, superior and easily portable medium papyrus.
The word is also the name of the paper reed Cyperus papyrus, from which the material was made, a plant which then abounded in the marshes around the branches of the Nile, especially in the Delta. The traveler will seek it in vain today. Its complete extinction in the natural state in Egypt was evidently accelerated by its popularity, not only as a writing medium, but for making boats, mats, baskets and other wickerwork, sandals, kilts, ropes and so forth.
It has not yet been understood whether climatic, ecological or other factors contributed. To see it in Egypt today one must resort to the plots maintained in artificial pools in front of the Egyptian Museum and the Agricultural Museum in Cairo, though it still survives wild in the wetlands of Bahr el-Ghazal in the southern Sudan and along the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
The word papyrus is of ancient Egyptian derivation and meant something royal, which itself implies that the pharaohs enjoyed a monopoly in its manufacture, as documented specifically from Ptolemaic times. The word then passed into European languages via Greek and Latin as paper, even though the wood-pulp from which this is now made has no connection with papyrus itself.
To make writing material the Egyptians had to slit the papyrus stem into thin strips which were laid close together and then covered with a second layer running at right-angles to the first. These were sprinkled with water and beaten hard with stone hammers, not only to flatten them but to release the natural viscous juices that bonded them together into a strong but pliant sheet, usually between 15cm and 50cm wide.
Once dry, the white surface could be written on without the ink running or fading for a very long time. The sheets were finally glued together in strips and wound cylindrically on wooden rods. The resultant scrolls were often of considerable length, as much as 40m and more for literary texts
A less common medium for writing was parchment, made of specially cured hides stretched out thin and treated to make them perfectly white. In ancient Egypt a scribe was instantly recognizable from the wooden or stone tablets that he carried on a cord over his shoulder. These were 'palettes', each with two recesses - one for black ink (made from soot bonded with papyrus juice) and the other for red (made from finely ground burnet ochre, similarly bonded).
Along with these went a little leather bag with a drawstring, containing a phial of water for mixing the colors. Each palette also had a groove to hold a brush made from a rush stem (Juncus maritimus or J. rigidus), the tip of which had to be frayed by chewing before use. From Ptolemaic times reed pens were more common, made from the stems of Phragmites aegyptiaca cut to a point and split at the end like quills. Pens were kept in a leather case tied to the palette with a strap.
Thanks to Egypt's hot, dry climate, papyrus documents have survived for thousands of years despite their fragile cellular structure. Among several papyrus collections discovered in modern times is the celebrated temple archive from Abusir, found by Ludwig Borchardt at the beginning of the 20th century in the ruins of the 5th-dynasty funerary temple of Neferirkare's
pyramid and published in 1976 by Paule Posener-Krieger. Further valuable finds were made at Abusir by a Czechoslovak team led by Miroslav Verner, in the funerary temple of Queen Khentkaus in 1980, and two years later in the temple of the unfinished pyramid of King Raneferef The latter was a cache of some I 50 papyrus fragments of varying length which have greatly enlarged our knowledge of the organization and economy of such temples in a wide historic context.
Many papyri have turned up in urban rubbish dumps. Others, unfortunately, had been used as fuel for bread ovens and pottery kilns, as in the grounds of King Tuthmosis III's treasury south-east of the temple of Amun at Karnak. Scrolls bearing texts of the Book of the Dead, which accompanied mummies into their tombs, had a better chance of survival. One unexpected source of papyrus documents proved to be the 'cartonnages' used as cheap coffins in the Late and Graeco-Roman Periods. These were made of several layers of linen cloth, sometimes interleaved with used sheets of papyrus. Discarded papyri and cloth were used to stuff the mummies of sacred animals, particularly crocodiles.
For short records and notes, accounts, certificates and draft texts the scribes also resorted to a cheaper material - fragments of broken pottery or limestone sherds, ostraca. These were sometimes used for more permanent records too, such as inventories, but even private legal records and contracts.
From texts and from numerous tomb-wall illustrations we can visualize how the managerial and auditing functions of the scribes entered into people's daily life. All kinds of routine records, for the most part lists and summaries, were their doing.
Everything, it seems, had to be noted down, from the number of bags of grain harvested to the size of herds, amounts of seed-grain and materials issued from store, types and quantities of objects manufactured, building supplies, tools and artisans' requisites. Records were kept of work attendance, wages paid, kinds and quantities of booty seized, numbers of hands and phalluses cut from the bodies of fallen enemies all as punctiliously as the inventories of gifts that followed the deceased into the next world or were daily sacrificed in his honor by the funerary priests.
The precision with which quantities are reckoned, impressive even to a modern reader, shows that a good scribe had to be good at arithmetic. Calculations of labor and material needed for the construction of canals, ramps or monumental buildings also display a degree of algebraic skill that must have been invaluable in the planning stage. Even the pedantic lists of all and sundry were far from being the pointless whim of soulless bureaucrats. By giving senior officials an oversight of the country's total stocks it made possible their orderly distribution, the creation of reserves and planning for special projects.
Other documents from the scribe's pen include regulations issued by various bodies, court proceedings and records of private contracts dealing with sale and purchase, loans, hire, financial arrangements between spouses, inheritance, receipts, taxes, accounts and so on.
We also find many documents of a private character, such as letters. Where the writer is the scribe himself his own name appears on them. We possess for example a set of 54 letters, in whole or part, exchanged between the scribe Butehamun in the artisans' village of Deir el-Medina and his father Djehutimose in far-off Nubia. Scribes also penned letters, in return for payment, on behalf of illiterate clients.
Writing, and in particular the copying out of literary texts was another important field of activity. Among such texts were biographies, instructions, literary, historical, political and propaganda writings, short stories, fairy tales, fables, travelers' tales, poems, chronicles, 'stories of kings' and 'stories of great men', public announcements written on scarabs, scientific, didactic and religious literature, and dramas.
The diligence and concentration of the scribe at work is nicely caught in pictures like those in the 6th-dynasty Mastaba of Mereruka at Saqqara. There we see them squatting in a row with their heads down, copying texts onto papyrus rolls on their laps. Behind the last scribe in the row stands an apprentice with a blank roll, ready to be handed to whoever needs it. The novice is shown bowing slightly in deference to his masters and preceptors.
The care with which scribes followed harvest operations emerges from paintings in the tomb of Menna, a scribe to the estates of Tuthmosis III, at Sheikh Abd el-Qurna ( 18th dynasty). Here we see them, tablet in hand, noting down the figures supplied by surveyors for the area of a standing crop so that they can estimate the yield for later comparison with the amount actually harvested. Meanwhile their master, presumably Menna himself, has climbed up onto a pile of sheaves for a better view. Elsewhere scribes are writing down the number of sacks that the farmers are emptying into the granary - one of many figures which, when totaled up, will have enabled the top administrators to know how much there was in the state granaries.
In one Middle Kingdom model from the 11th-dynasty tomb of Meketre the landowner is shown seated in a pavilion with four scribes on his right. These are busy counting the cattle as they are led past by the herdsmen. This ritual was part of a general cattle census, which gave an overview of the animal herds in different regions, and on which planning could be based for consumption levels, temple sacrifices and so on.
Equal importance attached to the work of the scribes in the craft shops, especially those dealing with metal. In the Egyptian Museum in Cairo there is a 5th-dynasty relief from Saqqara where an official is weighing material in a hand-held pair of scales, a steelyard. One pan contains the weights, the other a number of long objects, presumably the raw material. A scribe is jotting the figures down on a scroll. A further weighing ensued after processing so that the scribe could compare the two results and ascertain whether the wastage was within approved limits.
This routine weighing operation reappears in the many portrayals of the judgment of the Dead. In these we see the heart of the deceased being balanced against the propriety of his deeds during life, this being represented by an ostrich feather - symbol of the Goddess of Truth, Maat - or by a seated figure of the goddess herself The recording scribe in this case is Thoth, patron of scribes and scholars.
In the royal artisans' village of Deir el-Medina originally two, and from the end of the Ramessid period four scribes were employed. Together with the foremen and one of the draughtsmen they belonged to the management group known as the Overseers of (the crew's) Work in the Place of Truth'. They reported directly to the vizier, as implied by their title, 'King's Scribe in the Place of Truth'. They lived either in the artisans' village itself, as Wennefer and Horisheri did, or close by. Among the tombs of the artisans we have found those of two scribes, Amenemope and Ramose, which are equal in size, decoration and furnishing to those of the foreman.
The main responsibility of the scribes in this community was to organize, check and record work progress on the tombs of the Valley of the Kings. At the start of each day they noted whether everyone had turned up for work, and the reasons for any absence. Remarks about various aspects of the work were put down on limestone sherds and later compiled into a ledger on scrolls kept in the scribe's office for future reference. From these a report was written up at regular intervals for the vizier.
The scribes had to draw all kinds of material from the royal warehouses - copper implements, plaster, charcoal, structural timber, cloth, candle grease and so on. These they held in their own storerooms, keeping a careful record. All tools and material issued to workers by the 'Guardians of the Tomb' had to tally with the scribes' records, not only as a check but as the basis for requisitioning fresh supplies from the appropriate warehouse.
It was the same with the grain stocks from which the scribes gave the workers their wages in kind. When deliveries were held up by the breakdowns in central government that occurred during the 20th dynasty, the scribes tried to cope with the emergency by touring the surrounding villages with a couple of stick-toting tomb-doorkeepers and levying grain for their community from the farmers. The scribes also shared responsibility with the foremen for ensuring public order and security both on and off the worksites.
Inside the artisans' village, too, the scribes made their impact by helping to solve any problem that required a document to be written or read. People came to them with their private complaints and quarrels, and brought suspect individuals for preliminary questioning. Where only minor offences, or semedet people matters, were involved, the scribes would try to settle the issue on the spot. Weightier ones were dealt with by the 'Court of the Tomb' on which the scribes also sat. Where human justice failed, the scribes would seek divine aid by placing written questions before the statue of the deified king Amenophis 1, asking for his ruling to be announced by oracle.
Among other functions the scribes fulfilled those of the professional writers such as we can still see in countries where illiteracy persists. They drew up, and sometimes witnessed, all kinds of legal contracts, wrote letters to dictation, or read them for those who could not manage it themselves. They also wrote the funerary inscriptions on the coffins of deceased community workers and their families, and supplemented their incomes by doing the same service for clients outside the community. The tomb scribe Horisheri, for example, earned 95 copper deben, a considerable sum in zoth- dynasty Thebes, for his work as 'scribe and painter' on three coffins for Tanodjmet, a female singer in the service of Amon-Re.
Though their activities served the purposes of the elite, the majority of scribes functioned as hardworking, patient and efficient organizers of the everyday life of society. They constituted a fairly numerous network of educated men, contributing to the advancement of culture.