A. Sutherland - AncientPages.com - In ancient Egypt, there was no public school system. In consequence, the average Egyptian could neither read nor write. It is estimated that less than one percent of Egyptians - at least during the Old Kingdom - were literate.
Therefore, scribes were widely needed in the country. They represented the largest group of workers (after farmers) that included thousands of officials, individuals hired to handle various accounts, official correspondence for large estates, and many freelancers.
Successful scribes never had to do manual labor as others, and society respected them widely.
This early New Kingdom statue commemorates the scribe Minnakht ("Strength of Min") and demonstrates how ancient scribes read papyri – in a seated position on the floor with the text on their lap. Image credit: Walters Art Museum - Public Domain
Scribes of ancient Egypt are known not only from tombs and representations, but also from papyri, various seals, and graffiti. At the ancient site in Gebelein, known for its cemetery, where archeological finds stretching from the Predynastic Period to the Middle Kingdom have been found, and among them, a beautiful example of a scribe's wooden box, containing lumps of black and red ink, papyri, reeds, and a mortar (dated to the fourth dynasty).
Much of what we know today about ancient Egypt comes from the country's scribes, one of the most valuable professionals educated in the art of writing. This writing included hieroglyphics, hieratic scripts, and the demotic script (the first millennium BC), mainly used as shorthand, for commerce and arithmetic.
Thoth was the god credited with the invention of writing by the ancient Egyptians. He was the scribe of the gods who kept knowledge of scientific and moral laws. Ancient Egyptian scribes and the officials left for us, ordinary people, excellent knowledge about the country's political, administrative, and economic activities due to the records, books, and inscriptions.
Thanks to the scribes, all of Egypt's social classes and representatives of other nationalities were mentioned in various documents.
Not Everyone Could Become A Scribe
To become a scribe, attending a particular school for scribes was needed. You would learn how to read and write hieroglyphics and hieratic scripts at this school. Usually, according to family tradition, the children of scribes became scribes. Sons of scribes were brought up in the same scribal tradition, sent to school, and inherited their fathers' positions after entering the civil service.
Statue of a scribe of the 5th dynasty, Museum at the necropolis of Saqqara; Catalogue Generale no. 63; statue belonged to a person called Ptahshepses and was found in Saqqara mastaba C10; numbering according to Maspero. Image credit: Harald Gaertner - CC BY-SA 3.0
Also, the sons of higher officials and sometimes even farmers' children and the sons of artisans could attend local temples for instruction in letters.
Long Hard Work And Much Studies To Become A Scribe
It was hard work that usually took four to five years to go through scribe school, where all scholars were male. The scribe needed writing reed brushes dipped in red and black ink to his daily work.
Most often, a professional scribe wrote on papyrus. However, the scribes could not do papyrus exercises at the studies because it was costly material.
Early in the morning, each scribe came to his work with a small basket containing some bread and beer and returned home late afternoon. The students had to confront and learn many complicated scripts, including various signs. At first, they spent plenty of time acquainting themselves with hieroglyphic symbols by copying them over and over again onto old fragments of pottery, flakes of limestone, or wood boards with replaceable surfaces, until they remembered it perfectly.
Black ink was used for the body of a text and red to mark chapter headings or a significant phrase.
Later, after learning all necessary basics, the student could begin copying onto papyrus, and yet, the scribe's other skills were needed though they were not easily mastered.
In the "Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians" by Bob Brier, A. Hoyt Hobbs, we read:
"In addition to hieroglyphs - the picture symbols we most often associate with Egyptian writing - a more cursive form called hieratic was employed for handwriting, and a more abbreviated version called demotic was used for quicker notes. When all three symbol systems had been committed to memory, a pupil who showed aptitude could move to advanced courses in mathematics and basic building practices, both of which were taught through practical examples rather than abstraction rules..."
Once again, it is important to stress that these studies were complex and, first of all, very boring studies for many children.
Scribes Had Many Privileges
Despite difficulties in studies, however, many students successfully graduated and could become professional scribes with many privileges. As a scribe, a young man could enjoy opportunities for advancement. Specific orders of Egyptian priests required scribal skills, as did the quartermaster corps of the army and many government jobs
Scribes were considered part of the royal court, were not enrolled for compulsory military service, and did not pay taxes. They were also free from the heavy manual labor and worked with painters and artisans who decorated reliefs and other building works with scenes, prominent figures, or hieroglyphic text.
Egyptian scribes also were extremely busy copying books of the dead for thousands of customers interested in immortality. Such copies did not always represent good quality; many scrolls (especially different spells) were very beautifully decorated with colored paintings. Others were brief with no illustrations, but people paid for them and generally, all the scribes' customers were satisfied.
Written by – A. Sutherland - AncientPages.com Senior Staff Writer
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Expand for references
Rawlinson G. "Ancient Egypt"
The Hieratic Script
Williams, R. J. Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt