What Challenges Did Scribes in Ancient Egypt Face?

Scribes represent a small portion of ancient Egyptian society who were literate.
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Scribes in ancient Egypt were well regarded and earned good livings. They were so well positioned in society that they didn’t even have to pay taxes. However scribes earned such prestige by enduring long, hard years of rote memorization, copious copying and demanding teachers who were quick to beat lessons into each student. Becoming a scribe was no easy task, and working as one could lead to criminal temptation or pave the road to conspiracy.

1 Lengthy Learning

The first challenge every scribe had to overcome was learning the skills of the trade. Young boys destined to enter the ranks of scribes typically began their schooling around the age of five, and then faced lengthy apprenticeships before they were allowed to practice independently. Most students learned in formal schools associated with temples, administrative offices or the pharaoh's court, although boys of noble lineage might have the luxury of private tutoring.

2 Tough Text

Scribes-in-training had to memorize and cleanly reproduce the more than 700 pictograms and symbols that made up the hieroglyphics-based written language of ancient Egypt. Students also had to learn cursive script versions of these characters, which were quicker to reproduce and better suited to writing on papyrus, the paper of the era. Adding to the complexity of such extensive memorization, the same symbol could often be used to mean different things, such as a pair of legs which could indicate movement, directions or related concepts.

3 Tough Teachers

Students also had to become adept at mathematics, memorize proverbs and stories, mix their own pigments and make their own brushes from reeds. With so much to learn, there was no time for carelessness or bad behavior. Teachers did not respond kindly in either circumstance, as indicated by the ancient Egyptian word, “seba,” which means both “teach” and “beat.”

4 Criminal Conspiracies

Life as a scribe had prestige -- it also introduced dangers. Royal scribes might be called upon to record dangerous political secrets. The art of cryptography or coding secret messages can even be traced back to an Egyptian scribe working for Khnumhotep II 4000 years ago, who inscribed non-standard hieroglyphs on the nobleman's tomb. Legal records show scribes named among lists of the accused in political scandals, tomb robberies and conspiracies, and those found guilty could face execution or disfigurement by having their noses and ears cut off.

5 Fighting Fraud

Scribes who worked as accountants might not be privy to political games, but they encountered dangers of their own. Temptation and greed led some scribal accountants to fix numbers, allowing them to steal from the pharaoh's inventories and build inventories of their own. To prevent this type of fraud, two scribes were assigned to perform the same counts and calculations, independently. If the results failed to match, the punishment meant death for both.

6 Toting Tools

Early scribes did not use desks – they either worked while standing or kneeling. It wasn’t until the second millennium B.C. that desks came into common use. Scribes carried their own writing surfaces wherever they went. The primary tools of a typical scribe included a writing board that doubled as a palette, a series of brushes or pens, two cakes of ink, rolls of papyrus and a pot or bag filled with water. Not all scribes, however, carried these tools. Draftsmen were scribes who painted hieroglyphs on tomb walls.

A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.