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Work Scribe's palette
Department of Egyptian Antiquities: Objects from everyday life
© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps
Objects from everyday life
This long, slim, rectangular object is a scribe's palette made of ivory. It contains four brushes and still shows traces of use. There was an inscription on each side. The palette was the scribe's main tool and came to symbolize the profession. The present example was found in a New Kingdom tomb in the Theban necropolis, on 19 December 1861, by Count Michel Tyszkiewicz; it belonged to the important collection he donated to the Louvre in 1862.
The shape of this object is characteristic of the scribe's palettes that were used from the Fifth Dynasty through the late Pharaonic period: a long rectangle, usually made of wood (less frequently of ivory), with a slot to hold calami (reed-pens equivalent to our paintbrushes). There are two small oval wells at one end; the upper one still contains a cake of black ink, the lower one the remains of a cake of red. Colored stains all over the flat part of the palette indicate that the instrument was indeed used. The pen slot, which has a sliding cover, still contains four plant stems of which three are complete, their tips stained black and red. Hieratic inscriptions (in cursive script) were painted in black on both surfaces of the palette, but these have almost worn away and are now illegible. This practical, easy-to-hold instrument combines a palette for mixing colors with a pen box and ink pots; it could even be used as a ruler.
The scribe's equipment
To do his job properly, the scribe needed several other instruments in addition to his palette and calami. He used a mortar and pestle to grind pigments (stored in a little bag) into powder, adding acacia gum as a binder to form little cakes of color. He used a paper knife and smoother to make the surface of his papyrus sheet presentable and suitable for writing on. He then took his calamus, flattened one of its tips, dipped it into a pot of water, and wiped it over the paint, as we still do with gouache. The scribe had a range of writing surfaces at his disposal: papyrus, wooden tablets, fragments of pottery or limestone (ostraca), fabric, etc. He used two main colors: black (made from charcoal) for the text, and red ocher (from iron oxides) for the titles, chapter headings, and corrections. Once his work was done, he affixed his seal to the document. All this equipment was stored in wooden boxes which often feature next to scribes on bas-reliefs and paintings. Painters also used palettes which had several wells for different colors.
The emblem of a prestigious profession
This essential instrument, which might seem rather basic, soon became the emblem of the scribe's profession. Its image was used to denote the word "scribe" and the various other terms relating to the act of writing. Administration played an important role in Egypt, where these specialists were held in high esteem; whoever wanted to make a good living and be his own master was encouraged to take up the profession. Scribes were present whenever and wherever accounts, inventories, or inspections were needed. Many palettes - including artificial ones such as those carved out of stone - have been found in tombs.
New Kingdom, 1550-1069 BC
Theban necropolis, Egypt
H. 28.2 cm; W. 2.6 cm; D. 0.72 cm
Gift of Michel Tyszkiewicz, 1862
Writing and scribes
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