The Scribe and Hieroglyphs

Scribes held one of the noblest professions in ancient Egypt and were among the wealthier inhabitants of an artists’ village.The elevated status of scribes was due to the importance given to Egyptian written language and the fact that only a small percentage of the population was literate.

Ancient Egyptian funerary cone

Ancient Egyptian funerary cone
Photographer:  © Australian Museum

Scribes, slong with the foremen, were captains over workers in a village and were the liaison between the community and the higher authorities. Their duties included recording the activities of the village, overseeing the use of material from the royal storehouses, receiving and distributing wages, recommending candidates for vacancies in the workforce, as well as being chief magistrates in the local court and chief witnesses for any oaths.


Hieroglyphs, which combine both art and language, were holy signs which were mainly intended to decorate the walls of temples, tombs or pyramids. It was written in both columns and rows, depending on the design of the text. As a general rule, the direction the hieroglyphs are read depends on which way the animal or human figures are facing. For example, if a figure faces right, the text is read from right to left. Hieroglyphs are rich in clearly recognisable pictographs drawn from almost all areas of human life. They are read according to whether or not the hieroglyph stood for a sound or an actual word or concept. When a glyph is meant to represent an actual thing instead of a sound, they are usually followed by a single stroke.

Hieratic script

Hieratic script is a form of cursive writing which developed alongside hierogylphs around 2700 BCE. This script allowed a scribe to write quickly so it was more appropriate for everyday matters and more widely used than detailed hieroglyphs.

Ancient graffiti

Well preserved ancient graffiti tells us a great deal about the tomb artists’ relationships. During the 18th and 19th Dynasties, scribes visiting the pyramid complex of Djoser often felt compelled to leave their mark. As with modern graffiti, much of it is names, titles and dates. But one scribe recorded the contempt he felt for his fellow workmates: ‘my heart sickens when I see the work of their hands ... I have seen scandal, they are no scribes such as Thoth has enlightened...’. 

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Tags artist, artisan, craftsmen, village workers, ancient Egypt,