Ancient Egypt: the status of scribe was ultimately not easy, study reveals

Ancient Egypt: the status of scribe was ultimately not easy, study reveals
Ancient Egypt: the status of scribe was ultimately not easy, study reveals

Was that (really) a good situation, scribe? While historians know that literate officials in ancient Egypt enjoyed a privileged status in their time, a new study, published in Scientific Reports on June 27, 2024, sheds light on this ancient condition: It appears that four millennia ago, scribes suffered damage to their hips, jaws, and thumbs as a result of their work.

Scribes, rare literate people in the Old Kingdom

In the third millennium BC, only 1% of the Egyptian population could read and write. At least, this is what the authors of the publication estimate based on research by British Egyptologists John R. Baines (Department of Oriental Studies, Oxford) and Christopher Eyre (University of Liverpool). “The 1% of the population of the Old Kingdom who were literate is determined by a mathematical calculation of the number of people living in Egypt at that time and the ratio of officials to that number.”explains to Haaretz Veronika Dulíková, Egyptologist at the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University in Prague and co-author of the study.

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While it is therefore difficult to estimate (and there is no consensus), the literacy rate was particularly low. In the Old Kingdom (around 2700 to 2200 BC), scribes were therefore a valuable resource. They undertook crucial administrative work, which partly explains their former high social status.

Certainly, they did not go to war, did not carry any bricks to build the pyramids and did not work on the farm. But the repetitiveness of their actions while sitting was not without consequences.

Bone health and physical constraints 4,000 years ago

This was revealed by the analysis of the skeletal remains of 69 adult men, buried in the necropolis of Abusir (on the west bank of the Nile, Egypt) between 2700 and 2180 BC. BC and known as scribes thanks to the inscriptions on their tombs. Comparing their bones to those of non-scribe men showed that the two groups were very similar. For example, they had more robust arms and legs than those of today.

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But among the secretaries, the scans revealed a higher incidence of osteoarthritis in the joints between the lower jaw and the skull, the right collarbone, the right shoulder, the right thumb, the right knee, and the spine, particularly in the neck. Telltale signs of physical stress were also observed in the humerus and left hip bone, the kneecaps, the right ankle, etc. The researchers note that it is possible that some of these lesions were influenced by the fact that the scribes were elderly at the time of their deaths.

These results are, however, consistent with the wall representations and writings of the time, which depict the transcribers in squatting or cross-legged postures, with their arms unsupported and their heads leaning forward. A position that undeniably puts tension on the spine. Especially since their careers often began in adolescence: scribes worked for long hours… and for long years!

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(Bad) habits for the back, jaw, hand

As for the observations made on the jaw, these could be explained by a tool: the brush. 4,000 years ago, scribes used fine reed pens (A sharp reed) dipped in ink. Before they were supplanted by more rigid instruments from Phragmites communis around about 100 BC. AD Now, our writers had to chew the plant at the end to form the head. “When the calamus became frayed or clogged with ink, the scribe would cut the end again and chew the next section. This happened quite often.”the first author of the study, Petra Brukner Havelková of the National Museum in Prague, described to our colleagues.

According to the specialist, quoted by the Guardian this time, it is very likely that the scribes suffered at least occasionally from dislocated jaws and headaches. The damage to the right thumb – ancient art suggests that they were right-handed – could also be linked to pinching or gripping the reed pen, which required a certain dexterity. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they also suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome in their hand. [compression du nerf médian au niveau du poignet, entraînant des douleurs et engourdissements dans les doigts, N.D.L.R.]but unfortunately we cannot identify this on the bones”she adds.

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That said, the scientists note that there was not a huge difference between the bones of administrators and others. Perhaps because the latter also frequently adopted the same positions as part of their profession. For scribes, the risk factors were probably concentrated above the waist… just like today’s office workers. These findings could in the future help identify, through these characteristic damages to the neck, back and right thumb, these former officials among the skeletons of individuals whose titles are not known.

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