Professional scribes were very important for the operation of the Egyptian state, which was ruled by an efficient administration, organized into various departments, all of which employed scribes. For this reason, the profession was considered one of the noblest and was recommended to young people in Instructions and other didactic treatises. These works present a portrait of the scribe as a man who earns a good living and occupies an important place in society.
We do not possess any explicit evidence concerning the organization of scribal schools, their curricula, and their teaching methods. However, from indirect evidence in texts, we can infer that, especially in the third millennium BCE, the primary mode of early instruction was teaching by fathers to sons. Occasional reliefs depict a father carrying scribal instruments, accompanied by his son, also a scribe. Princes and privileged youths were educated at court, as shown by the inscription of Ptahshepses, a private individual who lived during the fifth dynasty and owned a stela, now in the British Museum. Proof of the existence of schools appears in the Middle Kingdom. They were situated near the court, as noted in the “Satire on Trades,” which is framed as the remarks of a father who accompanies his child to school at the capital.
Children started their studies at the age of six or seven, and pursued elementary training for at least four years. There followed a long period of apprenticeship preceding entrance into the administration, as reported in the inscriptions of Bekenkhons, a high priest of Amun at Karnak in the time of Ramesses II.
Students started by learning cursive writing (Hieratic). There exist ostraca containing exercises in writing and counting—signs inscribed inside a grid, words repeated many times, or lists of numbers or dates. Their further training utilized the Instructions and the classical literary texts, which were memorized by repeating them aloud and were often copied on ostraca or papyri. They also used true manuals, such as the Kmyt (Kemit), containing assorted sentences, advice useful for scribes, and glorifications of the role of the scribe. Basic education included some knowledge of geography, arithmetic, and geometry. The study of foreign languages was limited, but it surely existed, since we possess bilingual texts, especially from the New Kingdom, when diplomatic language was Akkadian. Scribes had to know at least the most common foreign words and place names, as indicated by the Satirical Letter, dating to the nineteenth dynasty. Here a scribe, displaying a mastery of the lexicon, including many Semitic loan words, attacks a colleague in regard to his knowledge of various difficult subjects, including the geography of western Asia.
Young people specialized in various subjects, such as administration, medicine, or theology, and attended schools annexed to the royal palace or to other institutions. Near the temples were situated “Houses of Life,” known, for example, from Memphis, Abydos, Amarna, Akhmim, Coptos, Esna and Edfu; these were centers of the scribes' literary activity, where medical or religious texts were written. Young men could eventually enter them as apprentices, but we probably should not regard the “Houses of Life” as a kind of university. Some temples also possessed libraries, containing not only religious but also medical, astronomical, and literary texts.
For their exercises, students and scribes also used onomastica, lists of plants, animals, minerals, place names, and so on, which are known from the Middle Kingdom to Greco-Roman times. In one of these, a document from Tebtunis, different types of documents and scribal instruments are enumerated.
The instruments are shown, tied together, in the hieroglyphic sign sš, indicating ideas connected with writing, and attested since the earliest records, often in a very stylized manner. On one side appears a cylindrical holder for reed pens (made of the sedge Juncus maritimus); on the other is a rectangular palette with two wells for pigments; and in the middle is a circular leather bag for pigment pellets and sundries. This object, at first colored red because it was made of leather, was later interpreted as a water-pot utilized by scribes to thin their ink. Now colored blue, this became the object usually represented in the middle of the hieroglyph sš. Apart from the objects symbolized in the hieroglyphic sign, the essential tools of the scribe are first represented in the Saqqara tomb of Hesyre, dating to the third dynasty. In the fourth dynasty, the equipment is more richly represented in tomb reliefs, which now show, in addition to the previous items, straw baskets or wood cases for papyri, leather or linen rolls, papyri rolled up and fixed with cords, and pots for water, used for thinning ink and rinsing reed pens. The equipment also included small cloths for cleaning, a stone to prepare papyrus, and a small mallet used to smooth it. The first palettes were simple shells (still used in the fourth dynasty and occasionally in the fifth), or the small rectangular palette mentioned above. From the fifth dynasty until the Late period, the rectangular palette was much lengthened (20 to 43 centimeters/6 to 15 inches), always with two wells for black and red pigments (or more wells for colors, if the palette was for a painter) and with a central slot to hold reeds. In Ptolemaic and Roman times, writing materials changed—especially the pen, now rigid and sharpened, made of the stem of a reed (Phragmites aegyptiaca). The writing material varied widely: might be stone for monumental inscriptions, but for more common uses papyri (often erased and reused), ostraca—fragments of stone or potsherds, frequently employed for personal use—and wood tablets, often used by students. A nearly complete set of scribal equipment was found by Howard Carter in a tomb from the beginning of the New Kingdom next to the causeway of the Hatshepsut temple on the Theban west bank. It includes, in addition of the above-mentioned objects, a clay figurine of a baboon, the image of Thoth, the god of writing and patron of scribes.
A relatively small number of people went to school, and among them we must distinguish different degrees of literacy. Most literate people, and most functionaries bearing the simple title of scribe, knew only the Hieratic script. They could probably read only the commonest hieroglyphic signs, such as those forming royal cartouches. Other people, like craftsmen or stonecutters, could carve hieroglyphs, but they could rarely read what they wrote. In regard to arithmetic, a relatively large number of people could perform elementary calculations, but only the most experienced scribes or architects could solve difficult mathematical or geometrical problems. A complete knowledge of hieroglyphics was restricted to a small number of people, such as high dignitaries and lector-priests. The latter title, indicating a very high level of literacy, is often borne by high priests, important officials, doctors, or even the royal hairdresser, in place of the title of scribe, which they probably held at the beginning of their career.
Some high officials continued nevertheless to bear, in addition to many others, the simple title of scribe, either indicating their presence in the administration or serving as the abbreviation of a composite title such as “scribe of the divine books” or “scribe of the king's documents.” Most of these highly literate functionaries, however, did not list among their titles that of scribe; if present in their titulary, it is generally composite or refers to the supervision of scribes in a particular branch of the administration (“scribe of the treasury,” “director of scribes of the granary,” “inspector of scribes of the king's documents,” etc.).
In tombs of high officials, scribes are often mentioned or represented attending to different activities. We possess some of their funerary objects, like statues or offering tables, and their tombs. Although few burials of the lowest-level scribes have been identified, some tombs of some more important scribes, especially supervisors, have survived. In the Old Kingdom at Giza, there are tombs of at least fourteen scribes, already represented with name and title in tombs of high officials, out of 219 attested on reliefs; at Saqqara, where 320 scribes are represented, only five of their tombs are known. Yet a great number of tombs belonging to high-level scribes are known.
In some cases, true “dynasties” of scribes, extending through many generations, are attested. This phenomenon is due to the transmission of the title from father to son, a characteristic of the Egyptian administration. But scribes of modest origin who became important officials are not unknown, especially in the New Kingdom.
We can estimate that less than one percent of Egyptians—at least during the Old Kingdom—were literate. The figure is necessarily approximate; we do not know the exact population of Egypt, the total number of tombs, the level of literacy of the tomb-owners, and other facts. The percentage given is calculated on a population of 1 to 1.5 million people; on the number of tombs that probably existed, which were in most cases owned by literate persons; and on the number of persons represented in tombs bearing title indicating a possible level of literacy. But the question of literacy in Egypt remains open. For certain places and periods, we can postulate a higher and more certain percentage of literacy; this is especially true for Deir el-Medina during the New Kingdom, where literacy probably reached a level of 5 to 7 percent.
Scribes are known not only from tombs and representations, but also from papyri, seals, and graffiti. A very interesting case is represented by scribes mentioned in the archives, the most ancient known having been found in Gebelein and dated to the fourth dynasty. From the site there also comes a beautiful example of a scribe's wooden box, containing papyri, lumps of black and red ink, reeds, and a mortar. Larger archives survive from the temples of Abusir (fifth dynasty), those of Illahun (Middle Kingdom), and the Theban temples of the New Kingdom. The scribes mentioned in these documents may be the authors of the archive files, or personnel of the temple who registered economic data (payments of craftsmen and personnel, records of duties, inventories of the temple's implements and properties, etc.). They might also be responsible for the management of the temple workers. Besides their activities pertinent to writing and recording, supervision was an important occupation of scribes. Graffiti found in necropolises (e.g., Saqqara), in quarries (e.g., the Wadi Hammamat or the Sinai), or in sites far from Egypt (e.g., Buhen) attest to the presence of scribes among work groups or expeditions. The “scribe of the crew,” the “scribe of the recruits,” and the “scribe of the army” organized and managed the subsistence needs and implements of workers, craftsmen, or soldiers. A relief now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, confirms this: it shows two squads of recruits followed by a chief holding a lance and a scribe's palette; among the soldiers, another scribe appears.
Many other scribal activities are represented in reliefs or in the models of daily life that are typical of the end of the Old Kingdom and the beginning of the Middle Kingdom. We very often sense a parallelism between the scenes showing scribes and their titles. They most often appear in agricultural scenes, recording the different phases of rural activities up to the filling of the granaries with cereals, when a “scribe of the granary” is always present. They attend to cattle-counting, an activity exemplified by the title “scribe of the cattle”; and they are present in the breeding of birds or the force-feeding of geese or hyenas, as well as at the return of fishermen, to record the quantity of fish caught. Scribes also appear in bakeries and breweries. Their presence is always requisite beside goldsmiths, to control the metals' weight and the quantity of jewels produced; they can appear near weavers or traders, to ensure good work or fair exchange. They also play an important role in the administration of justice, bearing the titles of judge and scribe, and often appearing under a canopy in front of which guilty farmers are forcibly detained. An administrative building of this type, where scribes worked and wrote, was discovered in Balat. Scribes are also shown engaged in the funerary cults of kings and private persons, and may present the deceased with a list of the products of their estates.
The simple title of scribe does not denote high rank, but it represents the condition of entry into the administration, afterward giving access to specialized activities or to different administrative departments. It is attested from the beginning of Egyptian history. In the first three dynasties, there are more than forty mentions of scribes, especially on seals and pots, at Saqqara, Helwan, Beit Khallaf, Abydos, Hierakonpolis, Elephantine, and Byblos. The title, also attested on objects of unknown provenance, may be simple or composed, such as “scribe of divine books” or “scribe of the desert.” In the early dynasties the simple title of scribe covered a variety of activities in the administration. Beginning in the fourth dynasty, and increasingly in the following dynasties, we can see a specialization of scribes, accompanied by an increase in their titles, which are often very detailed. Their hierarchy is also well established: there are very rare mentions of under-directors (imy ḫt) of scribes; very well attested are directors (sḥḏ); less known are inspectors (ḫrp), and always present chiefs (mr) of scribes in every department. Exceptionally, chiefs of inspectors (mr ḫrpw) of scribes are also attested. Scribes work in all branches of the administration, and may hold modest offices, but they are also very highly placed in temples and at court. An important number of them belong to the king's personal chancery and to the royal archives; others attend to the king's clothing and food, together with specific officials. Numerous scribes work in the central office of the vizier, often charged with judicial tasks or with the recording of judicial acts. The vizier himself is frequently styled “chief of the scribes of royal documents.” Scribes might also have a role in the management of economic matters, as shown by their hierarchy in the pr ḥry wḏb, a center of redistribution of goods that had a great importance in the Egyptian economy. Simple scribes, with their directors and chiefs, are also attested in the state granary and treasury, as well as in secondary departments of the latter (“scribe of the gold houses,” “scribe of the wʿbt-workshop,” etc.). Furthermore, they work in the fields, where they collect information and taxes for the central government. This activity, already known in the Old Kingdom, is very well attested in the New Kingdom on many papyri. Finally, they play a role in temples, writing religious and administrative texts or managing personnel and economic matters. We know of many priests bearing scribal titles.
The profession of scribe was considered so important that a special type of statue represented this official, sitting cross-legged, holding a papyrus open on his lap, with a reed pen ready to write, and sometimes a palette slung over one shoulder. These statues can be found in temples from the Middle Kingdom to the Late period; they were deposited in tombs during the Old Kingdom. They sometimes appear in burials of men bearing scribal titles, but often the tombs were owned by officials who did not bear the title. Scribes' statues, then, do not necessarily represent an activity carried on by a tomb-owner during his life, but imply the literacy of the owner and the importance of writing in the afterlife.
This last aspect also emerges from the presence in tombs of model scribes' palettes, often made of alabaster or ivory, which were never used in life but could be necessary in the underworld. Some were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. References to the scribe are also present in religious texts—first in the Pyramid Texts, where allusion is made to the knowledge and practice of writing. This tradition continues in the Coffin Texts.
Evidence is sparse for the existence of female scribes. None is known in the Old Kingdom; the only representation from that period of a woman writing and holding scribe's implements is that of the goddess of writing, Seshat, the feminine counterpart of Thoth. The image, in a Saqqara mastaba of the sixth dynasty, of the princess Idut in a boat where scribal instruments are placed, does not mean that she was literate, or a woman scribe; actually, these objects belonged to the first male owner of the tomb, the vizier Ihy. In the Middle and New Kingdoms, the title sšt is attested, but its interpretation is controversial. Some scholars consider it not as the title “scribe” in the feminine, but as that of cosmetician. More certain evidence of the title “woman scribe” (sš sḥmt) is found in the twenty-sixth dynasty tomb of the lady Ireteru, who was in the service of the divine worshipper Nitokris. If women were therefore exceptionally occupied as scribes, they could be educated to read and write, especially in the highest social strata. Indeed, we possess evidence of documents, letters, and poetic compositions written or dictated by women, and in some New Kingdom Theban tombs, the traditional scribes' implements are represented under a woman's chair, probably as a proud indication of her literacy.
- Baines, John. “Literacy and Ancient Egyptian Society.” Man, n.s. 18 (1983), 572–599. A very rich article, published in a review of anthropology, illustrating the importance and the role of writing in the Egyptian culture and of literate people in the society.
- Baines, John, and Christopher J. Eyre. “Four notes on literacy.” Göttinger Miszellen 61 (1983), 65–96. A basic article very often mentioned in Egyptological studies, concerning levels and proportions of literacy; literate women; scribes and literate persons of Deir el-Medina.
- Brunner, Hellmut. Altägyptische Erziehung. Wiesbaden, 1957. The classical study on the organization, methods and aims of teaching in the different periods of Ancient Egyptian history. Contains the principal sources concerning education (funerary inscriptions of scribes or students, Instructions, examples of miscellanies, etc.).
- Bryan, Betsy M. “Evidence for Female Literacy from Theban Tombs of the New Kingdom.” Bulletin of the Egyptological Seminar 6 (1984), 17–32. Article considering the spare textual and figurative evidence for female literacy.
- Černý, Jaroslav. Paper and Books in Ancient Egypt. An Inaugural Lecture delivered at University College, London, 29 May, 1947. London, 1952. An introduction to scribes' instruments and characteristics of papyrus as writing material.
- Gardiner, Alan H. “The House of Life.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 24 (1938), 157–179. The author collects and studies all the sources on this institution which was an important center of scribes' activity.
- Janssen, Rosalind M. and Jac. J. Growing up in Ancient Egypt, pp. 67–89. London, 1990. The chapter on the “Schoolboy” concerns organization of schools, methods and subjects of study, and evidence for female literacy.
- Kaplony-Heckel, Ursula. “Schüler und Schulwesen in der ägyptischen Spätzeit.” Studien zur altägyptischen Kultur 1 (1974), 227–246. On schools and students' exercises in the Late period, with uncommon examples of verbal conjugations.
- Leospo, Enrichetta, ed. La scuola nell'antico Egitto. Torino, 1997. A volume on school intended for the general public, and available in the Egyptian Museum of Turin. The different aspects of education, didactical texts, writing material, etc. are illustrated with objects of the Egyptian Museum of Turin. Containing some interesting unpublished items.
- Parkinson, Richard, and Stephen Quirke. Papyrus. London, 1995. A clear treatment of the history, manufacture, and usage of papyrus, with a chapter on the equipment for writing.
- Piacentini, Patrizia. “Enquête sur les scribes dans la société égyptienne de l'Ancien Empire (les nécropoles memphites).” Ph.D. diss., Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, IVe Section, Paris, 1997. Includes a prosopography of all the known scribes of the Old Kingdom, a detailed study of their titles and their hierarchy in the administration, and a review of the documents of the third millennium BCE, mentioning scribes (letters, decrees, papyri, seals, graffiti, etc.). It will be published in 2000.
- Schlott, A. Schrift und Schreiber im Alten Ägypten. Munich, 1989. A general study on different writings used in Egypt and on the figure of the scribe.
- Schott, Siegfried. “Schreiber und Schreibgerät im Jenseits.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 54 (1968), 45–50. The author collects and discusses the allusions to the scribe in Pyramid and Coffins Texts.
- Scott, Gerry D. “The History and Development of the Ancient Egyptian Scribe Statue.” Ph.D. diss. Yale University, 1989. Catalog and detailed study of the statues of scribes from the Old Kingdom to the Late Period.
- Vernus, Pascal. “Quelques exemples du type du «parvenu» dans l'Egypte ancienne.” Bulletin de la Société Française d'Égyptologie 59 (1970), 31–47. On the social success of the scribe, based on his competence; with a choice of translated texts.
- Wente, Edward. Letters from Ancient Egypt: Writings from the Ancient World. Atlanta, 1990. Contains the up-to-date translation of the Kemit, of letters mentioning scribes and of the Satirical Letter of the scribe Hori.
- Williams, Ronald J. “Scribal Training in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 92 (1972), 214–221. Article concerning the methods of training of the scribes, illustrated by a number of sources translated and annotated.