Thursday, December 7, 2017


Niv Allon, Hana Navratilova, Ancient Egyptian Scribes: A Cultural Exploration. Bloomsbury Egyptology. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017. Pp. xi, 203. ISBN 9781472583956. $114.00.

Reviewed by Jacqueline E. Jay, Eastern Kentucky University (

Version at BMCR home site


The title and activities of the stood at the center of ancient Egypt's administration, and the term's most common English translation "scribe" is ubiquitous in current discussions of ancient Egyptian society. Yet, in modern scholarship the word "scribe" often appears without explanation, obscuring the fact that its ancient uses were remarkably amorphous. By exploring "the multiplicity of approaches towards the [social] figure of the scribe" (p. 3), this monograph provides a valuable nuancing of our understanding of the scribe's role in Egyptian society. After a brief introduction and a prologue outlining the mechanics of writing in ancient Egypt, the bulk of the volume consists of ten chapters that are each biographies of "scribal" individuals of the New Kingdom. The individuals at the core of the study represent the broadest possible cross-section of scribal culture, including royals and artists alongside more traditional examples of scribal administrators. In this way, Allon and Navratilova explore the often conflicting uses of the term "scribe" in the context of elite self-presentation.

Another of the authors' goals is to illustrate ways in which historical change over the course of the New Kingdom affected the lives of the Egyptian elite (p. 3). To that end, the biographies are arranged chronologically, beginning with Paheri, an overseer of fields and royal tutor to the sons of Thutmose I who was buried at Elkab during the reign of Thutmose III, and ending with Djehutimose Tjaroy, scribe of Deir el-Medina at the very end of the Twentieth Dynasty. This chronological organization means that specific themes are often introduced in one chapter and then re-emerge a number of chapters later. Particularly useful, then, is the brief description of several key thematic connections found at the end of the introduction (p. 4). I elaborate upon these here.

Chapters 1 (Paheri), 7 (Dedia), and 10 (Djehutimose Tjaroy) reveal the "great variety of tasks" engaged in by scribes (p. 4). In this respect, the chapter on Paheri is particularly interesting, for his self-representation changes depending upon its context. Paheri's own tomb stresses his role as accountant: he is depicted overseeing the collection activities of lower level scribes and (more unusually) in one scene he himself is shown writing, "reckoning the number of cattle" (Fig. 1.3). In contrast, in the tomb of his grandfather (the soldier Ahmose, son of Ibana), his title is given as "draughtsman of Amun," suggesting that Paheri himself was the artist who designed the decorative programme of his grandfather's tomb. The blurred line between "scribe" and "draughtsman" is also a key theme of the life of Dedia, chief draughtsman of Amun under Haremhab, Ramses I, and Seti I. Although Dedia did not hold the title of "scribe," his stelae speak to his high status as a dignitary, and his job likely required him to be literate. Finally, the case of Djehutimose Tjaroy highlights the more unorthodox tasks scribes might be called to perform in times of national difficulty. Although officially the scribe of Deir el-Medina, at various points in his career Djehutimose may be found collecting grain taxes throughout the broader Theban region, travelling south to supply Piankh's army, and (most dramatic) being ordered to secretly interrogate and if necessary execute two Medjay.

Chapters 2 (Senenmut) and 5 (Tutankhamun) address issues of literacy. Although the designations "literate" and "scribal elite" are often used interchangeably in modern scholarship, Allon and Navratilova stress the critical difference between the two: as they note, "All scribes may be assumed to be literate to some extent, but it is a logical fallacy to assume that all literate people were scribes" (p. 2). The case of Hatshepsut's chief official, Senenmut, illustrates this axiom, because he never calls himself scribe. Is this, as the authors hint, because of his relatively humble beginnings (p. 30)? Perhaps as a result he had a different attitude towards the value of "scribehood" than did other members of the elite. In general, the title of scribe does seem to have been highly regarded and was used by the most powerful administrators, as revealed by the pre-royal career of Haremhab (Chapter 6; for other examples, see p. 35). The title was not, however, applied to royals, who (as noted in the chapter on Tutankhamun) were nonetheless literate. Using Princess Meritaten's ink palette as an entry point, the chapter on Tutankhamun also addresses the question of female literacy in ancient Egypt, concluding that at least some elite women likely were literate.

Chapters 4 (Amenemhat) and 9 (Hori) explore ways in which the body of scribes developed its own self-definition of what it meant to be a scribe. The focus of Chapter 4 is a man named Amenemhat who left a visitors' graffito in a chapel at Djoser's Step Pyramid complex, paleographically dated to the Eighteenth Dynasty. In this graffito, Amenemhat calls himself "the scribe of skilled fingers" (a traditional self-designation highlighting a scribe's ability) and (much more unorthodox) expresses his anger at the shoddy nature of the earlier graffiti left in the chapel: "It breaks my heart as I see the work of their hands. This isn't good skill. It is like a work of a woman who is lacking knowledge" (p. 54). As the authors note, Amenemhat's obviously insulting comparison to "a woman lacking knowledge" may itself be an indication of a rudimentary level of female literacy, albeit an informally trained one (pp. 64-65). Chapter 9 similarly focuses on criticisms levied within the scribal community, its case study being the fictional Hori who in his "satirical letter" of the Ramesside Miscellanies castigates his colleague Amenemope for his many shortcomings, all described in detail.

Chapter 8 uses Inena, the copyist of the Tale of Two Brothers on P. D'Orbiney, active during the reign of Seti II, as an entrée into issues of text authorship (particularly of literary works) and scribal education. While text authorship was typically not recorded in ancient Egypt, the Ramesside Period did witness an upsurge in the practice of identifying oneself as copyist through manuscript colophons. With respect to education, the authors present a number of important reinterpretations of texts traditionally understood as "school texts." They suggest that the Late Egyptian Miscellanies were more likely produced by early career scribes than by advanced students. They also summarize Odgen Goelet's argument that the archaic script of the Kemit would have made it more suitable in the New Kingdom for the training of artists than of administrative scribes. Instead, they suggest that the earliest stages of Inena's education focused on training in the production of hieratic administrative texts.

The authors group Chapter 8 (Inena) together with Chapter 3 (Tjanuni) and Chapter 6 (Haremhab), noting that all three focus on "men who saw the role of the scribe beyond the administrative realm" (p. 4). Chapters 3 (Tjanuni) and 6 (Haremhab) are themselves linked by the presence of the military. Tjanuni was a military scribe who served under Thutmose III, Amenhotep II, and Thutmose IV. He is known solely from his tomb, Theban Tomb 74, which incorporates a tomb biography structurally very similar to that of the better-known Ahmose, son of Ibana. As the authors note, both of these biographies exemplify the revival of the "historical biography" genre in the New Kingdom (p. 46). Unlike Ahmose, however, Tjanuni does not claim to have fought himself, but rather to have witnessed the king's military deeds and to have recorded them in writing. It thus seems reasonable to suppose that Tjanuni was one of the scribes responsible for producing daybook journals of military activity while on campaign, and perhaps also the monumental record inscribed on the walls of temples like Karnak upon the army's return. Haremhab's career before his rise to pharaoh also reveals the strong connections between the scribal world and the military. In Haremhab's pre-royal Memphis tomb, his most commonly listed titles are "generalissimo" and "royal scribe" (p. 81). Although named as scribe, however, pictorial depictions present him engaging in cultic and military activities, but never writing. In fact, a few scenes depict him with his own "military scribe," who presumably did his writing for him. This disconnect suggests that for the very highest-ranking officials, the title of scribe was an honorific unrelated to their actual daily activity.

At the beginning of the chapter on Haremhab, the authors note that Haremhab used the hieroglyph of the scribal palette and penholder (Gardiner Y3) both before and after his ascension to the throne. This statement could be taken by the reader to mean that Haremhab continued to use the title of "scribe" after he became king. Importantly, however, the authors are in fact emphasizing the appearance of the hieroglyph itself in texts commissioned by Haremhab as king. They make the suggestion that, even as king, Haremhab placed a particular importance on the act of writing and on writing equipment. As evidence, they cite the introduction to his legal decree, which describes his scribe taking "the palette and the document" to record in writing everything that the king said (p. 85). But, I would also argue that this scene separates the now-king from his former role as scribe. As "royal scribe," he still bore the title even though someone else did the writing for him; as king, he no longer does.

Overall, the monograph left me with a strong sense of a distinction between practical and symbolic ancient uses of the term "scribe." Practically, we can understand scribes as the lower-level functionaries (pen-pushers) carrying out the basic recording tasks of the administration. These are the men described by Chloe Ragazzoli's definition of the scribal class as "a sub-elite of intermediary civil servants who were responsible for the administrative functioning of the Egyptian State and of its temples."1 But on a symbolic level, individuals far higher up the ladder could choose to present themselves as scribe as a way to indicate that they possessed the scribe's important skills. The authors note Quirke's suggestion that "scribe" be translated "secretary" instead, since the connotation of the latter term runs the gamut from the office secretary to the high level "Secretary of State" (p. 155 [n. 2]; p. 82).

The book is explicitly designed to be understandable to the non-specialist, and for the most part it succeeds well. Ancient dates are notoriously difficult, and it would have been impossible to provide precise birth and death dates for the non-royal individuals covered in the text. It would, however, have been useful for these men to be integrated into the chronological list at the end of the book in order to indicate the kings under whom they are believed to have lived. Similarly, the nature of the book is such that the overarching history of the New Kingdom is presented only tangentially, and thus might be somewhat confusing for the non-specialist unfamiliar with the basic details. In general, however, the book should prove quite accessible. For the specialist, it serves as an important corrective to the common Egyptological equation of the "literate elite" and the "scribal elite"; in actuality, the latter should really be presented as a subset of the former. At the same time, while scribes per se did not "control" the administration (p. 148), the men who were at the top of the power structure could choose to stress their identity as scribes in their own social representation. As this study stresses throughout, the title clearly held a great deal of cultural currency.


1.   Chloé Ragazzoli, "Weak Hands and Soft Mouths: Elements of a Scribal Identity in the New Kingdom," ZÄS 137 (2010), 157.

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