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Collection Highlights

Pencase with six reed pens

Pencase with six reed pens
© BA Antiquities Museum/E.Omar


showcase 2

Pencase with six reed pens

Category:
  • Tools and equipment, writing and drawing equipment, pens, reed pens
  • Tools and equipment, writing and drawing equipment, pencases
Date:
Ancient Egyptian period, New Kingdom (1550-1069 BCE)
Provenance:
Upper Egypt, Giza, Saqqara (found in 1898 by V. Loret)
Material(s):
  • Organic material, fiber (from plants/animals), reed
  • Organic material, wood
Height:
0.8 cm;
Length:
27.5 cm;
Width:
6.2 cm
Hall:
Ancient Egyptian Antiquities, showcase 2


Description

The pencase we have here is of the type used from the fifth dynasty until the Late Period. It's rectangular in shape; it has two shallow wells for black and red pigments, the traces of which are still visible, and a central slot with a sliding cover to hold the reeds (usually 15-25 cm long). As some signs show, the palette has worn out from long usage.
 

Literacy

We can estimate that less than one percent of the Egyptians could read and write. The question of literacy remains, however, 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 5 to 7 percent.

Egyptian Scribes

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.
The scribes were involved in activities, ranging from recording the different phases of rural activities and cattle counting to important tasks in the administration of justice and the engagement in the funerary cults of kings and private persons.

Scribes’ Education

We can infer from indirect evidence that the scribal elite tended to pass on their profession from father to son, thus enabling power to be retained in the same family group over long periods. Proof of the existence of schools appears in the Middle Kingdom, and much of the work and training of the scribes is thought to have taken place in an institution known as the House of Life (Pr Ankh). Basic education included some knowledge in 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. Nonetheless, scribes had to be at least familiar with the most common foreign words and names of places.
Most scribes did not learn to read hieroglyphs which was the sacred script confined to works of art in offering-chapels and temples. Instead, they learned the cursive hieratic (and later Demotic) which they used in their routine tasks.

Scribes’ Prestige

The prestige attributed to the scribal profession is indicated by the popularity of the "scribe statue" which portrayed members of the elite in typical cross-legged scribal pose. These statues can be found in temples from the Middle Kingdom to the Late Period. They sometimes appear in burials of men bearing scribal titles, but often the tombs were owned by officials who had never served as professional scribes. This was to imply the literacy of the owner and the importance of writing in the afterlife.

Scribes’ Equipment

To prepare colours, the scribe used a mortar and pestle. Naturally occurring raw pigments were finely ground and then made into cakes by addition of some binding agent like Acacia gum or size (made from animal waste) and then placed in the palette receptacles. The scribe cut out and bruised one end of the reed to maximize absorption of pigment; to write he moistened the cut end with water and brushed over the cake of pigment, much as a water colour artist works with paints. The most common pigment was black (prepared with soot, boneblack, or charcoal) with highlighted sections such as headings and dates in red (made of ochre).
Throughout the Pharaonic Period, scribes wrote with a fine rush, the Juncus Maritimus, which is found in abundance in Egypt. Brushes for less fine work were made of fibrous materials like palm-rib and fibrous wood.

As a writing material, the scribe used wooden tablets, ostraca (limestone and pottery Chippings), and papyrus which was the typical writing surface of all periods. Individual papyrus sheets (48 cm to 43 cm at full size) could be divided into small pieces with a paper cutter for short documents (such as letters or accounts) or even joined together to create rolls for long religious, funerary and literal texts.


The information given here is subject to modification/update as a result of ongoing research.

Bibliography
  • James, T.G.H. Egyptian Painting. London: British Museum, 1985.
  • Quirke, Stephen, and Jeffery Spencer. The British Museum Book of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 1992.
  • "Scribes". In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, edited by Donald B. Redford. Vol. III. New York : Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Naissance de l'Ecriture Cunéiformes et Hiéroglyphes, Grand Palais: 7 mai-9 août 1982. Paris : Edition de la Réunion des Musées Nationaux, c 1995, c 1982.
  • Shaw, Ian and Paul Nicholson. The British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum, 1997.
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