Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Be a Scribe

Fig. 1 - Horemheb as a scribe
Fig. 2 - Horemheb, Metropolitan Museum
     A famous ancient Egyptian text tells young Egyptians that it is best to work hard to become a scribe. The text tells of the ordeals of those engaged in other professions (soldiers, farmers, etc.) while extolling the status and lifestyle of the scribe.

     Horemheb was a commoner who became Pharaoh of Egypt after the death of Aye, who in turn was a commoner who became King upon the death of Tutankhamen. Horemheb was a general, but he had himself represented in this statue, which pre-dates his becoming Pharaoh, as a scribe.

Fig. 3 - Detail of Horemheb's Face
Fig. 4 - Louvre Scribe, Old Kingdom
     The statue is quite similar to many other statues of scribes that have survived from ancient times. The scribe sits cross-legged with his "kilt" stretched tight over his lap to provide a surface on which to write. A papyrus roll is held open by the left hand while the right hand, which is broken away on this statue, is poised to use his brush to begin writing on the open scroll. Also note the rolls of fat in the Horemheb's pectoral area. This is designed to show that the scribe represented by the statue was above physical labor. This is a convention in Egyptian art that extends back to very early times.

     Compare the famous "seated scribe" statue from the Old Kingdom (now in the Louvre Museum in Paris). In spite of the fact that there is almost one thousand years between the creation of these two statues, the basic conventions described above are the same. From the rolls of fat on the scribe's body to the right hand poised over the scroll ready to begin writing, the statues do bear a remarkable similarity to each other.

Fig. 5 Granary Model of Meketre, 11th Dynasty
     Scribes would have spent their careers recording goods brought from the fields to a granary (see the scribes in the foreground of the famous granary model from the tomb of Meketre), or writing contracts or writing letters dictated by the lord of an estate. Well placed or very talented scribes would have worked in the major temples, or even for the King himself.

     Scribes with a gift for art may have been commissioned, in the New Kingdom and later periods, to create a "Book of the Dead" for a client. This required the ability to not only copy religious texts to a scroll, but to also draw the vignettes that illustrated the Book of the Dead. It was probably frequent for two different persons to collaborate on a copy of a funerary text, with one of them copying the text and the other painting the vignettes.

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