A painful profession for Egyptian scribes

A painful profession for Egyptian scribes

EGYPTIAN SCRIBE: Analysed remains revealed work-related injuries Photo credit: CC/Rama

Writer’s cramp is a thing of the past thanks to computers, although they have their drawbacks too.

Back, neck and shoulder pains together with headaches, eye strain, carpal tunnel syndrome and over-use of arms and hands all combine to take their toll.

And that’s nothing new.

Experts who examined the remains of 69 adult males interred between 2700 and 2180BC in the Abusir necropolis in Egypt found that 30 of them revealed specific, significant injuries.

All were scribes, as revealed by written documents found in their tombs.

At a time when only 1 per cent of ancient Egyptians were literate, theirs was a privileged position, which nevertheless left its mark on their bodies.

Petra Brukner Havelkova from Prague’s National Museum, lead author of a study published in the Scientific Reports journal, explained that the lives of Egyptian scribes had been detailed in the past, although this was the first time that their bones were examined for damage.

Known to have entered the profession as teenagers and continuing their work for decades, they would have sat cross-legged, knelt or squatted for long periods “hunched over paper and ink”, postures that affected the jaw, neck and shoulders.

Some changes were probably linked to the scribes’ ages at the time of their death but others were consistent with spinal stress consistent with the postures depicted in ancient iconography.

The investigators believe that frequent jaw dislocations were linked to the scribes’ habit of chewing rush pens to make a brush-like head while damage to the thumbs was associated to long-term gripping of pens.

“It was very likely scribes suffered from headaches at least occasionally,” Brukner Havelkova.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if they also suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome on the hand, but unfortunately we can’t identify that on the bones,” she said.

Headaches, carpal tunnel syndrome? For writers, some things never change.

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Written by

Linda Hall

Originally from the UK, Linda is based in Valenca province and is a reporter for The Euro Weekly News covering local news. Got a news story you want to share? Then get in touch at editorial@euroweeklynews.com.