Skeletons reveal what life was like for elite scribes in ancient Egypt

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Performing administrative duties in ancient Egypt may not sound physically demanding, but new research has found that scribes left their mark on the skeletons of the men who held these privileged positions.

Writers were men with high status and the ability to write and were part of the 1% of the population that was literate, according to the authors of a new study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

But the tasks scribes performed were repetitive. Today, office workers are looking for ergonomically supportive chairs for long hours at a desk. The Egyptian men took one of three positions that posed an occupational hazard, the study authors found.

Researchers analyzed the remains of 69 men buried in a necropolis in Abusir, Egypt, between 2700 BC and 2180 BC. Thirty of the men were scribes, as indicated on their graves, and their skeletons showed more degenerative joint changes within specific parts of their bodies than the other remains.

The findings open a new window on what life was like for scribes in ancient Egypt during the third millennium BC.

Become a writer

The remains analyzed in the study belonged to men who lived in the heyday of ancient Egypt, during the Old Kingdom, or the era of the pyramid builders, said study co-author Veronika Dulíková, Egyptologist at the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University in Prague.

Data from that time suggests to researchers that sons of elite families were educated at the royal court.

“At a very young age, in their teens, they applied for entry-level positions in various administrative offices to receive the necessary training to further develop their careers,” Dulíková said in an email. “Then they climbed the hierarchy of the positions they held.”

At the time, literacy was still in its infancy, she said. “There was no need for a predominantly agricultural population to be able to read and write.”

Scribes in ancient Egypt held positions not unlike government positions in modern society.

“These people belonged to the elite of that time and formed the backbone of the state administration,” Dulíková said. “Literate people worked in important government buildings such as the Treasury (today’s Ministry of Finance), the Granary (today’s Ministry of Agriculture), the Department of Royal Documents, etc. They also played an important role in collecting taxes, in temple complexes, cults, and in royal pyramid complexes.”

Egyptologist Veronika Dulíková appears at the site of Abusir and documents a hieroglyphic inscription from the tomb of the official Idu. - Martin Frouz/Archive of the Czech Institute of Egyptology; Faculty of Arts; Charles University

Egyptologist Veronika Dulíková appears on the scene in Abusir and documents a hieroglyphic inscription from the tomb of the official Idu. – Martin Frouz/Archives of the Czech Institute of Egyptology; Faculty of Arts; Charles University

The role of the scribes was crucial in ancient Egyptian society, but the documents they left behind are even more valuable to researchers.

“The ancient Egyptians kept careful records of everything they kept, which they then kept in archives,” Dulíková said. “If we find such a paper archive today, it is literally a treasure. From such records we can learn a lot about the functioning of the temple complexes, the services of the officials in the temples, the form of their salaries, what furniture or utensils were stored in the temple warehouses, etc.”

The Egyptians were so detailed that they placed written records directly into the tombs so that the positions, careers and ranks of the men buried there could be identified. This helped researchers identify the administrative writers.

Skeleton clues

Lead study author Petra Brukner Havelková, an anthropologist at the National Museum in Prague, has specialized in identifying activity-induced skeletal markers for almost two decades.

When Havelková looked at the remains uncovered at Abusir and saw examples of stress on the cervical spines, she realized that there might be a connection between the skeletal degeneration and the men’s occupations.

The first skeletons of Old Kingdom people were discovered at Abusir in 1976, but it took decades before more were excavated.

After Havelková could not find any research on degenerative joint and bone diseases in ancient writers, he teamed up with Dulíková and other colleagues to conduct a study of their own. They started marking changes in scribe skeletons in 2009, but it took another decade before they found enough remains for a comprehensive study.

During their analysis, the researchers found that the writers had a higher incidence of osteoarthritis, or a disease in which joint tissues break down over time.

These changes were observed in the joints connecting the lower jaw to the skull, the right collarbone, the top of the right upper arm bone connected to the shoulder, the bottom of the thigh, the right thumb bones and throughout the spine.

Changes were also noticeable, such as a flattened part of the bone at the bottom of the right ankle and indentations on both kneecaps.

A drawing shows the parts of the skeleton that were most influenced by the sitting postures and the work performed by scribes. - Jolana Malátková/Archive of the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles UniversityA drawing shows the parts of the skeleton that were most influenced by the sitting postures and the work performed by scribes. - Jolana Malátková/Archive of the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University

A drawing shows the parts of the skeleton most affected by the sitting postures and work of scribes. – Jolana Malátková/Archives of the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University

Most skeletal changes could be traced to the positions scribes assumed while carrying out their work, which is recorded in decorations on tomb walls and in statues. Writers stood, knelt, or sat with their legs crossed for long periods of time as they wrote.

When they sat cross-legged, their stretched skirts served as a table, the researchers said. They likely sat in this position for hours, with their heads bent forward, their arms unsupported and their spines arched.

But skeletal changes in their knees, hips, and ankles also indicate a squatting or crouching position favored by many scribes. It is likely that the scribes sat with their left legs kneeling or crossed, while their right legs were bent with the knees pointing upwards.

A jaw joint surprise

The scribes also chewed the ends of the rush stems they used as writing implements, making brush-like heads that they held in a pinched position for hours.

Chewing explains why their jaws were overworked, while long hours of writing likely caused the skeletal changes seen in their right thumb, the researchers said.

The researchers were less surprised to find changes in the lower limbs, because sitting cross-legged and kneeling was common across the population at the time. However, the researchers did not expect any changes in the jaws.

“The biggest surprise was the extreme overload of the jaw joints in the scribes,” Havelková said in an email. “This was something we didn’t even hypothesize about at first, because we were mainly focused on the rest of the skeleton outside the skull.”

Dr. Sonia Zakrzewski, professor of bioarchaeology and bioanthropology at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, called the research “innovative.” She was not involved in the investigation.

“It synthesizes both the Egyptological record (including the pictorial and sculptural evidence) with the bioarchaeological evidence of activity-related skeletal change to argue that the changes at the muscle attachment sites and the location for arthritic changes suggest that the affected individuals were scribes,” Zakrzewski said in a e-mail.

“One of the major problems we have in bioarchaeology is that we don’t know exactly how much, how long, and/or how often activity needs to be done for skeletal change to occur – but we know that our bodies remodel in response to such stresses. This integration of other aspects of archaeology with the skeletal material is needed in bioarchaeology, and this study is a very nice example of that kind of approach.”

Now the researchers want to collaborate with other groups to study and analyze scribes and other individuals at several ancient Egyptian cemeteries, such as the cemetery at Saqqara.

“Together with our ‘neighbors’ in Saqqara, we share a common goal, which is to learn as much as possible about the life and death of the people who lived during the time of the pyramid builders,” Havelková said.

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