Ancient Egyptian scribes faced similar risks as today’s office workers, says new Czech research

The work of ancient Egyptian scribes left specific traces on their skeletons, suggests a new study by Czech scientists. It shows that certain degenerative changes to the spine and joints were much more common in scribes than in other men.

During the research of Anchires' tomb,  Veronika Dulíková looks down at the places where the colorfully decorated chapel was originally located | Photo: Martin Frouz,  Czech Institute of Egyptology

Men with writing proficiency enjoyed a privileged position in ancient Egypt, being part of just one percentage of the population that was literate. However, as a new study by Czech scientists recently published in the journal Scientific Reports reveals, their profession also presented a certain occupational hazard.

After examining the skeletal remains of 69 individuals buried at the Abusir necropolis in Egypt between the years 2700 BC and 2180 BC, they discovered that 30 of the men, who were marked as scribes on their tombs, show specific degenerative changes to their bones.

Petra Brukner Havelková, an anthropologist at Prague National Museum and one of the authors of the study, says that while being a scribe was not particularly physically demanding, the fact that their job was repetitive, long-lasting, and often carried out in an unnatural position, left a distinctive trace on their bodies:

“Most occupations are currently studied for their occupational risk factors by doctors, orthopaedists or occupational therapists. And it could be said that similar risk factors apply to office workers today as to the scribes in ancient Egypt. They both suffered the same strain on the cervical spine from improper head postures and they had osteoarthritis of the hand or wrist, either from excessive use of mouse or pen.”

Just like contemporary office workers, the ancient Egyptian scribes also suffered from too much sitting, which affected their sit bones and lumbar spine, says Ms. Brukner Havelková:

“The Ancient Egyptian scribes had no chairs or tables. As we know from wall depictions or literary texts, the scribes were most often seated cross-legged or kneeling on the floor. Although it is true that they could also sometimes stand while working.”

Petra Brukner Havelková and Veronika Dulíková walk along the southern Abusír,  with Djoser's pyramid in Saqqara in the background | Photo: Martin Frouz,  Czech Institute of Egyptology

Apart from changes to the spine and arthrosis of the hand, wrist and shoulder joints, the skeletal remains of Egyptian scribes also reveal changes to their jaw joints. Petra Brukner Havelková says there could be two reasons behind this:

“The first one is directly related to their occupation. It is the extreme long-term stress on the jaw caused by chewing the pens used by the scribes for writing. Because these pens were made from rush that was cut and chewed at the end to form a brush-like head.

“When the pen became worn or clogged with ink, the scribe would cut off the end and chew the next section. This happened quite often and naturally it must have put a big strain on the jaw joint. The second cause is probably related to the overloading of the cervical spine due to frequent forward bending of the head while writing.”

Thanks to the new findings of the Czech scientist, it could be easier in the future to identify scribes even where there is no available information about the persons’ title or personal history.

Author: Ruth Fraňková
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