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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
- Athena: The Life of a Scribe
- University of Chicago: Ancient Egyptian Society and Family Life
- IEEE Global History Network: Cryptography
- The International World History Project: An Explanation of Hieroglyphs
- The Carnegie Museum of Natural History: Life in Ancient Egypt--Daily Life, Scribes
- Bar-Ilan University: Papyrus
- Canadian Museum of Civilization: Egyptian Civilization--Writing
- Georgetown University--Bryn Mawr Classical Review: Pascal Vernus, Affairs and Scandals in Ancient Egypt
- Journal of Accountancy: So That's Why It's Called a Pyramid Scheme
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