University of Memphis – The Hands that Wrote Egyptian History

University of Memphis – The Hands that Wrote Egyptian History

October 25, 2019 0 By Stanley Isaacs


Hi, my name is Melissa Thiringer. I am a first-year graduate student in the
MA Program in art history with a concentration in Egyptian art and archaeology. The focus of my research in Professor Corcoran’s
graduate seminar in art history is a scribal palette in the collection of the Institute
of Egyptian Art and Archaeology. The scribal palette is on exhibit in the Egyptian
gallery at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. “Be a scribe. It saves you from toil and protects you from
all manner of work.” In a text called the Satire of Trades, a master
scribe comments on the superiority of the scribal profession to his apprentice. This scribal palette, which measures just
over 8 inches long, would have been a scribes main writing tool and dates to the Middle
Kingdom, approximately 1878 to 1550 BCE. It was excavated in 1912 from a tomb in Sheikh
Farag, across the Nile from Abydos, by George Reisner in a joint excavation by Harvard University
and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. These handheld pieces, usually made from wood,
have two inkwells and a slot to hold reed pens. Dried ink cakes would have been in the inkwells
and dabbed with water to write with. Black ink was used for text while red ink
was used for titles or corrections. A scribe would chew on the end of the reed
pens to create a rough paintbrush. What drew me to this piece is the evidence
that it was used before being placed in the tomb. The slight discoloration in the inkwells shows
the black and red ink and one of the reed pens still has black ink on the tip. So, who would have owned this palette? Although many palettes are labeled with the
owner’s name, the identity of the owner of this palette is unknown. It could have been owned by a scribe or anyone
who was trained in writing the Egyptian language. Scribes were typically training in hieratic,
a cursive form of the more monumental hieroglyphic script. Since the majority of the Egyptian population
were not able to read or write, this person would automatically be of a higher status
than most. Scribes were necessary for a variety of jobs
such as taking the census, recording harvests, and designing tombs. The tomb also contained multiple model boats,
pottery and jewelry along with this scribal palette, indicating a well-off individual. I love to imagine what this scribe recorded
with this scribal palette, especially with this advice from the Lansing Papyrus, “Befriend
the scroll, the palette. It please more than wine. Happy is the heart of him who writes; he is
young each day.”