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  • Ancient Egyptian Scribes: A Cultural Exploration by Niv Allon & Hana Navratilova
  • Juan Carlos Moreno García
Ancient Egyptian Scribes: A Cultural Exploration. By Niv Allon & Hana Navratilova (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. xi plus 203 pp. $114.00).

This book is part of a series of Egyptological studies launched by Bloomsbury several years ago and renewed recently. The main goal of the series is to propose a brief, clear and accessible presentation of a relevant topic of the Egyptian past, addressed to a large audience of readers and scholars not necessarily familiar with the pharaonic world and its specialized jargon. In this vein, the series is also part of a more general move aiming to integrate pharaonic data into current discussions in social sciences, as well as to draw the attention of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists to particular documents and relevant aspects of ancient Egypt that might stimulate comparative research. This is the case, for example, of the series of books written by Koenraad Donker van Heel on sets of ostraca and papyri of the late second and of the middle of the first millennium BC that provide a lively perspective about the business, socio-economic strategies and ideological values of people of a certain status.

In the present volume Allon and Navratilova analyse the social and cultural position of scribes in ancient Egypt and they begin their study by problematizing the very concept of scribe. At the crossroads of literacy, administration, social status and prized professional self-consciousness, the authors stress the ambiguity concerning scribes. Not only because, in ancient Egyptian, the term usually translated as "scribe" also meant "draughtsman," but also because scribes formed a highly diverse social group, according to their level of literacy and writing skill, the type of texts they produced (as authors, copyists, literati or officials), their degree of integration into the administrative structure of the state or the fact of sharing a common set of cultural values. Given the potential scope of the theme, the authors have chosen to focus on a particular period, the New Kingdom (1550-1069 BC) and to ten people that illustrate diverse aspects of the condition of scribes and the world in which they operated. Additionally, the ten chapters are organized chronologically to help "appreciate several subtle changes that influenced Egyptian elites throughout the New Kingdom" (3). However, in doing so, the book focuses mainly on elite men, to the extent that important aspects such as gender and non-elite written practices (and literacy) are insufficiently studied despite the fact that the New Kingdom provides [End Page 1377] invaluable evidence about these topics. Leaving aside these questions, each chapter provides an enjoyable approach to a particular aspect of scribal activities as well as a clear and updated presentation of recent work on scribes, their written production and the social context of their occupation. Thus, for instance, chapter 4 takes the inscription left by a certain Amenemhat in a tomb built about a millennium earlier as a pretext to study graffiti inscribed by New Kingdom scribes in ancient tombs. Studies on tomb graffiti have enjoyed a considerable development in recent years, so the authors analyse the popularity of this practice in the New Kingdom, as it was a way to present oneself as literate, educated (many graffiti consist in brief excerpts of well-known literary works), and member of a prestigious community of specialists whose links could be traced back to reputable officials of the past. So, as the authors stress, "to fulfil his obligations as a power holder and as a responsible man, a man of authority had to exhibit excellent communication skills" (63). And one of these skills consisted precisely in displaying a good knowledge of sapiential texts that emphasized the scribal ideals of duty and moral superiority. Chapter 2 provides a different perspective, based on the role played by high status officials at the court, their links with the royal family, the opportunities opened for their ambitions and their construction of a "public" image in which writing as well as values attributed to dignitaries were crucial. Thus the authors study the career and socio-political context in which Senenmut, often considered a sort...


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