Ancient Egyptian Scribes Were Worked to the Bone

The administrators spent long periods writing in odd postures, which damaged their joints, researchers discovered

Ancient Egyptian statues and art depict scribes holding cross-legged or kneeling positions while working. Martin Frouz / Czech Institute of Egyptology

In ancient Egypt, scribes held one of the most coveted professions. These literate men—rarities in a society with low literacy—spent their lives putting pen to papyrus. But as researchers have discovered, such a career took a toll on the body.

According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists recently examined 69 adult male skeletons buried between 2700 and 2180 B.C.E., in a cemetery in Abusir, a pyramid complex in northern Egypt. Dozens of the skeletons shared specific, significant patterns of wear and tear. These 30—the scribes—had developed osteoarthritis: Their joint tissues wore away with use.

The researchers knew which men were scribes from written documents in their tombs, reports Scientific American’s Kate Graham-Shaw. In life, these men would’ve “enjoyed a privileged position in society,” the researchers write, as it’s estimated that only one percent of ancient Egyptians were literate. The title of “scribe” encompassed many important administrative roles, including keeping official records, managing households and recording taxes.

“Officials with scribal skills belonged to the elite of the time and formed the backbone of the state administration,” study co-author Veronika Dulíková, an Egyptologist at Charles University’s Czech Institute of Egyptology, tells Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki. “They were therefore important for the functioning and management of the whole country.”
The joints of the scribes exhibited evidence of osteoarthritis. Šárka Bejdová

As lead study author Petra Brukner Havelková, an anthropologist at Charles University’s Czech Institute of Egyptology, says in a translated statement by the university, Egyptian scribes’ lives and work have been studied in detail, but their bones have never before been examined for damage. Scribes sat in cross-legged or kneeling positions for long periods of time, hunched over paper and ink, the researchers write. Such activity was bound to overload the jaw, neck and shoulder regions.

These Egyptians’ skeletons showed evidence of strain in the knees, fingers, thumbs, ankles, shoulders, collarbones, necks, spines and jaws. Much of the damage was found on the skeleton’s right sides, with the right knee being an especially common point of osteoarthritis, possibly because scribes repeatedly squatted on their right legs, the researchers theorize. And ancient Egyptian iconography commonly depicts scribes writing with their right hands. The posture impacted scribes’ backs.

“In a typical scribe’s working position, the head had to be bent forward and the spine flexed, which changed the center of gravity of the head and put stress on the spine,” Havelková tells Live Science. She adds that spine dysfunction can cause the type of jaw damage exhibited by the ancient scribes’ skeletons.
The researchers determined the skeletal regions most affected by the scribes' work. Jolana Malátková

As the researchers note in the statement, modern documentation of occupational risk factors influenced their conclusions. Humans didn’t leave their poor postural habits in ancient times, and scribes’ workplace injuries have modern equivalents.

Though scribes “were high-ranking dignitaries who belonged to the ancient Egyptian elite, they suffered the same worries as we do today,” Havelková tells Live Science. They “were exposed to similar occupational risk factors in their profession as most civil servants today.”

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