Behind the Hieroglyphs: Material Evidence of Ancient Egyptian Texts

By Margaret Geoga Brown University
Since hieroglyphs were deciphered in the early 19th century, Egyptian philologists have focused on the language and content of ancient Egyptian texts. We transcribe from hieratic to hieroglyphs, translate them into English and other languages, and then interpret what the words say or examine their grammatical features. Many researchers never see the manuscripts that contain these texts, instead reading from copies or hieroglyphic transcriptions. A growing effort by proponents of the critical school of material philology seeks to broaden philologists’ focus beyond textual content to include the material features of ancient Egyptian manuscripts as well. Material and paratextual evidence help us learn more from ancient Egyptian texts than just what the words say, They enable us to consider who copied the text, in what context it was copied and by which methods the copy was made. Evidence such as the writing medium, the handwriting or how often the scribe refilled his pen with ink is often the only trace of the real person who wrote or copied a particular manuscript. These physical traces supplement textual evidence by revealing the presence of the ancient scribe and the context in which he created the manuscript.
The most obvious example of material evidence is the medium upon which a text was written. Common media used for literary, religious and administrative texts includes limestone or ceramic pottery fragments known as ostraca, stuccoed wooden writing boards and papyrus. Ostraca were cheap, readily available and disposable, a convenient medium for practice exercises and other documents that did not need to be preserved for the long term. Writing boards could be erased and reused like chalkboards and were well-suited for school exercises or administrative tasks such as inventory and accounting. Papyrus was a more formal and expensive medium, often used for important documents that needed preservation.
There are exceptions to each of these trends, so the medium alone is not sufficient to determine the context of a manuscript. However, when the medium is considered with other types of evidence, such as the scribe’s handwriting, we can explore the context in which a manuscript was copied. A writing board from the 18th dynasty discovered in the early 2000s by the Spanish-Egyptian mission at the necropolis of Dra Abu el Naga and published by José M. Galán illustrates the importance of combining different types of evidence to determine how a manuscript was used. The text is written on an erasable writing board, suggesting use by a scribal student, which is confirmed by examining the handwriting. The board contains writing in two different hands: one neat and experienced, and the other hesitant and imprecise. These two hands wrote the same lines side by side: a master scribe writing lines for an apprentice to copy. Although the board was found in a funerary context, its material features indicate that it was inscribed in an educational context.
By examining the scribe’s handwriting, known as paleography, researchers uncover details about the writing process. Where and how often the scribe refilled his pen with ink can indicate the level of familiarity and engagement with the text being copied. In general, a scribe who is mechanically reproducing a text will dip his pen whenever the ink begins to fade, even if that happens to be in the middle of a sentence. In contrast, a scribe engaging with the content of the text will dip his pen in meaningful places: the beginning of a phrase, sentence or stanza. An example of this is illustrated in a 12th-dynasty papyrus containing an almost-complete copy of “The Tale of Sinuhe.” As researcher Richard Parkinson has observed, the scribe tended to re-dip his pen at the beginning of a stanza, rather than when the pen ran low on ink, resulting in an irregular ink density throughout the manuscript. In one tense passage, when Sinuhe duels a champion fighter, the scribe waited an abnormally long time to re-dip his pen, suggesting he may have found this scene too gripping to interrupt with an ink refill. In another section containing difficult syntax, the scribe’s ink dips do not correspond with metrical or syntactical units of text, perhaps because he was distracted or did not fully understand the passage.
Patterns of pen refills also inform us about the method the scribe used to copy a text. A scribe writing from memory or taking dictation was more likely to refill his pen at the beginning of a line or stanza, whereas a scribe directly copying from a model manuscript may stop to re-dip whenever he likes. In a few cases, a scribe’s dipping pattern can indicate he was not copying an existing text, but rather composing as he wrote, as in the case of Heqanakht Letter I. This letter was written by estate owner Heqanakht to instruct his employee Merisu how to manage Heqanakht’s farm while he was away. Scholar James P. Allen explains that throughout most of the letter, Heqanakht dipped his brush between sentences. Occasionally, though, he also inked within words or even within a single sign, perhaps when he stopped to think about what he wanted to say. Heqanakht made several corrections by erasing signs and rewriting over them. These erasures, still visible today, are likely the result of Heqanakht changing his mind about a phrase, rather than correcting mistakes. These details supplement the content of the letter and offer a clearer view of the man who wrote it—a literate farmer so invested in the management of his estate that he wrote to employees in his own hand rather than employing a scribe.
Perhaps the most convincing demonstration of the value of material evidence is an example for which nearly all of these features are lost. Papyrus Millingen, an 18th-dynasty papyrus containing “The Teaching of Amenemhat,” survives today only in facsimile. For many years, even the facsimile was lost, leaving Egyptologists with just a copy of the copy of the papyrus. The loss of the original papyrus means Egyptologists cannot see if the scribe made corrections, when he used red ink instead of black or when he re-dipped his pen. Even the scribe’s handwriting is largely inaccessible, since we cannot verify the accuracy of the 19th-century copyist’s reproduction. As a result, we are left with no trace of the Egyptian scribe. We cannot determine with any certainty in what context he copied this manuscript, what level of scribal training he had achieved or what copying method he used. All we have are the words themselves, a significant but incomplete picture of what the text meant to the scribe. Material and paratextual features, when they survive, are considered by philologists alongside textual content because they are valuable evidence of the situations in which the texts were created in ancient Egypt.