In ancient Egypt, scribes Scribe’s palette (Gardiner sign Y3), (sesh) were highly educated individuals who played a crucial role in the administrative, religious, and intellectual life of the society. They were responsible for tasks such as record-keeping, drafting legal documents, and maintaining religious texts.

Papyrus plant
Drawing of an Egyptian scribe

Scribes underwent formal education in specialized schools that focused on teaching reading, writing, mathematics, and other skills necessary for administrative and clerical tasks. The training was rigorous and involved a long period of education, typically starting at a young age. These schools were often associated with temples or administrative centres, where the scribes received training under the guidance of experienced teachers. The ability to read and write hieratic, and to some degree hieroglyphs, as well as mastering the complex administrative and legal scripts was crucial for scribes working in civil service offices.

Temples were significant centres of education and administration in ancient Egypt. Scribes were closely associated with temple activities, as they played a key role in recording religious rituals, managing temple finances, and maintaining sacred texts. They participated in the production and preservation of religious literature, including hymns, prayers, and magical spells. Writing was almost entirely made on papyrus rolls.

Employed in various governmental offices and administrative centres, they were responsible for maintaining records related to taxation, land ownership, legal matters, and other administrative functions. Scribes were held in high esteem in ancient Egyptian society, and their work was considered prestigious and essential for the functioning of the state and religious institutions. Sons of scribes inherited their fathers’ civic position.

Scribes were held in high esteem in ancient Egypt

The Egyptians wrote with a brush made from the stem of a rush called Juncus maritimus, which still thrives in Egypt’s saline marshes.

Scribes in the royal courts played essential roles in documenting royal decrees, managing correspondence, and maintaining records of the pharaoh’s activities. The highest-ranking scribes might have had the privilege of serving the pharaoh directly and participating in the administration of the kingdom. While most scribes served in institutional settings, some were employed in private households, especially by individuals who required assistance with correspondence, legal matters, or other administrative tasks. The military also required scribes, where they kept military records, documenting campaigns, and managing logistics.

There were also workshops where copies of texts were produced. These workshops were responsible for creating multiple copies of religious and literary texts, contributing to the dissemination of knowledge. Some larger institutions, such as temple complexes, may have had libraries where scribes could access and study a wide range of texts.

Human error is a significant factor contributing to the potential corruption of hand-written manuscripts. Scribes, who were responsible for copying texts in ancient times, were skilled individuals, but they were not immune to mistakes.

Copying texts by hand is a labour-intensive and meticulous process. In the course of copying, there are many ways errors could be introduced, such as skipping lines, omitting words, or duplicating phrases. These mistakes might be unintentional, but they can introduce variations into different manuscript copies. Scribes might encounter difficulties in understanding the content of the text they were copying, especially if it was written in an unfamiliar language or used archaic expressions. Misinterpretations could lead to the introduction of errors as the scribe attempted to make sense of the original material.

Scribes may have inadvertently substituted one word for another due to their phonetic or visual resemblance, leading to semantic changes in the text. Words could be spelt in many different ways, there does not seem to have existed any standardized spelling rules, and different schools or individual scribes might have had their own conventions. Consequently, variations could result in spelling of words within a single manuscript or across different copies of the same text.

Dittography occurs when a scribe unintentionally repeats a sequence of letters or words. Haplography, on the other hand, is the accidental omission of a repeated letter or word. Both phenomena can alter the intended meaning of a sentence or passage.

Copying texts by hand often introduce errors

Skipping lines or repeating portions of text due to a momentary lapse of attention or visual oversight is also possible, leading to the introduction of inaccuracies or omissions in the copy. Fatigue, especially when working for extended periods, could lead to a decline in concentration and an increased likelihood of making errors.

Sometimes mistakes were noticed after completing a portion of the manuscript and attempts to correct them could introduce new errors or lead to inconsistencies in the text. Words were often abbreviated to save time and space. However, misinterpretation or misapplication of these abbreviations could result in errors, especially if there were variations in the conventions used by different scribes or regions.

When later scribes copied existing manuscripts, they might introduce errors while transcribing the text. These errors could compound over successive copies, leading to further corruption.

Understanding the potential for human error is crucial for scholars engaged in textual criticism, a field that aims to reconstruct the most accurate version of a text by comparing different manuscript copies and identifying variations. This process helps researchers discern the original wording and meaning of a text despite the inevitable errors introduced by scribes throughout history. As usual, non-professionals without specialized knowledge can only marvel at the skills of the professionals.

It’s important to note that the study of ancient manuscripts involves careful consideration of these potential sources of corruption. Scholars and historians use various techniques, such as textual criticism, to identify and correct errors, understand the context, and reconstruct the most accurate version of the original text.

The codex format refers to a type of book characterized by pages bound together on one side, forming a more book-like structure compared to the scroll. While the widespread adoption of the codex format occurred later, during the late Roman and early Christian periods, its roots can be traced back to antiquity.