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Work Tablet of an apprentice scribe
Department of Egyptian Antiquities: The final Pharaonic dynasties and the Ptolemaic period (circa 1069 - 30 BC)
Tablet of an apprentice scribe
© Musée du Louvre/C. Décamps
The final Pharaonic dynasties and the Ptolemaic period (circa 1069 - 30 BC)
This type of rectangular wooden tablet was used by student scribes. The black text, with punctuation and dates in red, is written in hieratic script. It comes from The Satire of the Trades, which praises the position of the scribe by encouraging the student to select this job, mentioning the fatigue, the dirt, and the risks of all the other trades. This satire was one of the great classical texts for Egyptian students.
This tablet is incomplete; it was originally a rectangular plank of wood that had been stuccoed, covered with canvas, and once again coated with smooth, impermeable stucco. This final coat allowed students to reuse the surface several times. A cord for hanging the tablet could be inserted in the hole in the upper right-hand corner, where the inscription begins. The text is written in black ink, from right to left, in cursive hieratic script on both sides. Punctuation and the added dates are written in red. Exercises were often dated in the scribe schools; in this, apprentice scribes in ancient Agype were no different from students today. These dates correspond to 18 writing sessions, in this case, two lines copied per session. Students learned hieratic writing by dictation and by copying literary texts. Given the quality of the writing, it is hard to determine if this tablet was written by an excellent student or was a model prepared by a copyist for his students.
The Satire of the Trades
The passages, from The Instructions of Khety, son of Duauf, now known by its modern title, The Satire of the Trades, first discusses Meskhenet, the goddess of birth: she predicts a literary profession for the child. After a short excerpt from the Hymn to the Nile, the series of the various trades follows, with a commentary about the drawbacks of each one.
"...The matt-weaver in the workshop, he is worse off than a woman; with his knees in his chest, he cannot breathe. If he loses a day of weaving, he is beaten 50 strokes; he bribes the doorkeeper to let him see the light of day...
"The caravan-driver goes abroad after leaving his goods to his children, fearful of lions and Asiatics... He reaches home exhausted; the trip has worn him out. Whether his home is made of fabric or bricks, his return is joyless..."
This discouraging description ends with praise for the scribe's trade, describing the indisputable superiority of this profession "... he is the boss. If you know writing, it will be more useful to you than [all] those other professions I've set before you. Behold!..."
The text was first written during the Middle Kingdom. Yet the preparation of the support and the paleography date the tablet to the 18th Dynasty, making this the oldest known copy of this text ever found. It is unfortunate that so much of it is missing. Yet it indicates that this Satire of the Trades was part of the Egyptian literary tradition and was used in schools during the New Kingdom and even later, according to other examples. Aside from the excellent quality of the calligraphy, this work was also a model of style (the language is classical), and text analysis, and was even a moral lesson for the student who also had to learn the text by heart.
BibliographyCollectif, Les artistes de Pharaon, Deir El-Medineh et la vallée des rois, 2002, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, pp. 224-225, Notice no 177
Collectif, Les antiquités égyptiennes, guide du visiteur, 1997, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, p. 36
Béatrice André-Leickman, La Naissance de l'écriture. Catalogue de l'exposition du Grand Palais, 1982, Éditions de la Réunion des musées nationaux, Paris, p. 349, Notice no 299
Posener, Revue d'égyptologie, 1966, t. XVIII, pp. 55-56
Piankoff, Revue d'égyptologie, 1933, t. I, pp. 51-74, Pl. VI
H. Brunner, Die Lehre des Cheti, sohnes des duauf, Ägyptologische Forschungen, 1944, Glückstadt, no 13, pp. 15-16, 142-184, 204-208
Tablet of an apprentice scribe
New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty, 1550-1295 BC
Wood, glued and stuccoed fabric, ink
L.: 52 cm; W.: 20.5 cm; D.: 1 cm
Excerpt from the "The Satire of the Trades"
Writing and scribes
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