At the beginning of Egyptian history, in the time known as the Old Kingdom (about 2575 BC to 2130 BC), scribes passed on their knowledge from father to son, in their own homes. This system was eventually changed to one in which boys were sent to special schools. The schools where built within the grounds of temples, to which they were linked. They were called “Houses of Life”.
Boys went to school from the age of four or five, whereas girls did not go to school at all. Boys learned to write by copying out words and passages from well-known texts over and over again. They wrote their school exercises on many different materials, such as pieces of broken pottery and flakes of limestone, or on wooden boards that could be wiped clean and re-used. By the time he was sixteen years old a boy was ready to leave school, and start work as a professional scribe.
The work of a record-keeper
Scribes were record-keepers, and in Egypt’s highly organised society it was important to have detailed, written information. They recorded just about everything – from brief notes about how many cattle a farmed owned, to long reports from the vizier about the progress of work on the pharaoh’s building sites. Scribes also copied out religious, scientific and historical texts. They drew up contracts for the sale of land and goods, and wrote and read letters for ordinary people who could not do it for themselves.
When scribes wrote, they usually used an everyday script that was quick and easy to use. At first, they used a script called hieratic. Hieratic was used for hundreds of years, until it went out of fashion around 600BC. From then on scribes preferred an even simpler script, called demotic. As well as being able to write and read these two scripts, scribes could also use Egypt’s most famous script – hieroglyphs. To write Egyptian hieroglyphs, scribes had to learn more than 700 different signs. Hieroglyphs were slow to write, and their main use was for writing sacred texts.
Other Facts on Scribes
To write, a scribe sat cross-legged on the ground. He pulled his kilt or skirt tight against his knees, which made a flat surface for him to rest on. He wrote with a reed brush or pen, held in his right hand. He used his left hand to hold and unroll the papyrus roll on which he wrote.
A scribe carried his brushes and pens in a wooden writing case. Most writing cases had two hollowed-out circles, where the scribe mixed his writing inks. He made black ink from soot or charcoal, and red ink from a mineral called ochre. Water was added until the ink was the right consistency with which to write. The ink took time to dry, and the scribe was careful not to smudge his work.
The most important writing material for a scribe was papyrus. It was a kind of fine white paper, made from the pith (the soft inner part of a plant stem) of the papyrus water reed. Reeds were gathered from the banks of the River Nile, their tough outer stems were removed, and the pith strips were placed together at right angles, then beaten until the plant fibres became a single flat sheet, about 50 by 40 centimetres. Sheets were joined together to make rolls. There were usually twenty sheets in each roll, but rolls themselves could be joined together. The longest known papyrus roll is more than 40 metres in length.