The Ancient Egyptian Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures

The Ancient Egyptian Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures:
The Scribe in Ancient Egypt

by Ilene Springer


How do we know so much about the ancient lives of the Egyptian people? True, we have statues and also artwork covering the walls of tombs. This gives us a pretty close idea of what ancient Egyptian lives were like. But the best picture comes from the words they wrote. The ancient Egyptians wrote down everything-from magic spells and curses to medical procedures and lists of food supplies given to the pyramid builders.

Actually, there weren't many writers or readers. Archaeologists estimate that maybe only one out of a hundred ancient Egyptians were literate. This may seem quite unusual considering that writing was all around on temples, statues and other public buildings. But the fact that so few people could read and write gave the individual who could-the scribe-very high prestige in ancient Egyptian society. It was, in fact, one of the most important occupations in ancient Egypt.


Most scribes performed clerical tasks for high priests and officials. They also drew up marriage contracts among common people and property agreements between buyer and seller. But the knowledge of writing was essential for anyone who aspired to leadership or administrative careers.

Tough training

Scribes had to learn more than 700 hieroglyphic signs-some representing ideas and objects; others representing sounds. Because the language was so complex, young scribes-almost always boys from wealthy or royal families-would attend school for years to become adept at writing and reading. And the training was rigorous. Boys as young as six or seven would practice writing on ostraca-flat stones or broken pieces of clay pottery. Archaeologists have found many ostraca with texts of amusing animal tales or stern moral tracts that were dictated by the scribal teachers. Students also had to learn mathematics so that a number of high-level professions would be
open to them: tax collector, treasurer, quartermaster or architect.


There is evidence that unruly students were handled with the teacher's stick. Although most scribes were male, archeologists have found some proof that a number of women were literate; they were mostly priestesses or daughters of royalty.

It took many years for a scribe to reach the point that he could be trusted to work on his own. But successful scribes enjoyed an enviable life free of manual labor. We see them depicted in statues (commonly, the seated scribe with crossed legs and linen kilt and writing materials in his lap) which show the prestige and power achieved by these ancient Egyptian writers.

Tools of the trade

In ancient Egypt, you would recognize a scribe immediately. He would be the upright man with soft hands-no calluses from manual labor--carrying a wooden palette with brushes and reed pens and a roll of papyrus under his arm. The palettes were used as writing boards which were equipped with a slot to hold pens. Scribes wrote in two primary colors--black and red-for most records.


Papyrus (the first paper in the world) was the other essential for the scribe. Papyrus was made by cutting long slices from the inner white pith of the of papyrus reed stalks (which was the sacred plant of northern Egypt) and laying them out crosswise to form a mat. This was then pounded with a mallet into a sticky sheet and left to dry under a weight. In modern Egypt today, there are papyrus institutes you can visit which use almost the exact method to produce papyrus, mostly for paintings and decorative items.

Once the plant's juices had evaporated, the sheet was light and pliable. You could bend it and roll it and pull it-and it would remain intact. It also absorbed the ancient Egyptian pigment very well. To begin using it, the scribe had only to burnish the papyrus sheet with a piece of wood or ivory. Then he could begin to write the words that truly revealed the genius and magic of ancient Egypt.



What Life Was Like On the Banks of the Nile (Time-Life Books, Alexandria, Virginia, 1996)

Ilene Springer just returned from her second trip to Egypt. She is a student of museum studies at Harvard University in Boston.

Last Updated: June 2nd, 2011