Scribes were among the few people in ancient Egypt who knew how to read and write -- only about 1 percent of the population was literate. Scribes could also use math to tally up quantities of things like crops and tools, payments rendered and payments owed. If you can think of an administrative task involving writing, reading or calculating, you can trust that a scribe was given that duty. Scribes wrote letters and legal documents, collected taxes, took records and tallies, and performed all manner of clerical duties. Because these skills were rare, scribes were in high demand. The prestige of the position also meant a scribe’s earnings were never taxed.
Scribes were generally born into their work -- the son of a scribe often became a scribe himself. Most scribes-in-training attended a school attached to a temple, an administrative office or the palace. Wealthier boys often received private tutoring instead. Students learned by repeatedly copying texts and reciting stories, often about manners and religious doctrine. The lessons were rigorously taught, as attested by the fact that the ancient Egyptian word “seba” means both “teach” and “beat.” Formal schooling could start around the age of 5 and would lead to a lengthy apprenticeship before a scribe was ready to strike out on his own.
Tools of the Trade
While students today are taught 26 alphabetic letters in the English language, ancient Egyptian students had to learn over 700 different hieroglyphic symbols, including phonograms, which represent sounds, and ideograms, which represent objects and concepts. Most of a scribe’s work was done using reed pens dipped in ink and applied to a paper called “papyrus.” In efforts to simplify this type of writing, a cursive script referred to as “hieratic” was developed based on but diverging from the original hieroglyphs. Carved or decorative inscriptions, such as on buildings and jewelry, continued to use hieroglyphs, but hieratic script became the norm for writing on papyrus.
While some scribes worked for high priests and pharaohs, others worked for regular, working people. In a typical village, scribes were paid to write letters, prayers, marriage contracts, property agreements and legal petitions. When someone who wasn’t educated received a letter, it was necessary to hire a scribe to read the letter aloud. Payment for such services was likely made in measures of grain, beer, meat or cloth, because money as we know it today didn't exist through most of ancient Egyptian history.
In the Military
The military needed scribes as much as every other group in society. Army scribes kept records of equipment, weapons, rations and activities. Staff posts at the higher ranks were on the career path of infantry scribes, who might start out by doing general accounting work. The first level of promotion would move a young scribe into a position as a chief army clerk, with the job of writing reports and performing administrative secretarial work. Another promotion could put the scribe in charge of documenting and allocating new recruits.
- Tour Egypt: The Ancient Egyptian Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures
- University of Chicago--Fathom Archive: Ancient Egyptian Society and Family Life
- Athena Learning: The Life of a Scribe
- Carnegie Museum of Natural History: Life in Ancient Egypt--Daily Life--Scribes
- International World History Project: Ancient Egypt, Hieroglyphs
- University of Massachusetts Lowell: Role and Contribution of Prominent Officials within Egypt and the Empire
- Tour Egypt: Prices, Wages and Payments in Ancient Egypt
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images