E25 Scribes

Egyptian Society during the Ramesside period, Dynasties XIX and XX



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Social Structure and Political Organisation

2.5 Scribes, artisans and agricultural workers

Scribes


The extensive bureaucratic system depended on the services of scribes (those who could read and write the hieroglyphic and hieratic script). They were employed at all levels ‑ in the palaces, in the temples, in all departments of the administration, in the army and by the nobles on their estates.

Scribes regarded their profession as superior to most others. Their train­ing gave them the opportunity to move up the official ladder and to occupy a place in society which gave them many advantages.

Set your sight on being a scribe; a fine profession that suits you. You call for one; a thousand answer you. You stride freely on the road. You will not be like a hired ox. You are in front of others .

Scribes were often able to avoid disagreeable duties. They were not subjected to hard physical labour, they were not conscripted for the army and it seems that they may have had special advantages with regard to taxation – ‘There is no tax levied on him who works in writ­ing; he has no levies (to settle)’.

The men who reached the higher positions could expect to live a good life. One senior official, Nebmare‑nakht, Chief Overseer of the Cattle of Amun, tried to impress this on his apprentice.

I instruct you ... to make you become one whom the king trusts; to make you gain entrance to treasury and granary. To make you receive the ship‑load at the gate of the granary. To make you issue the offerings on feast days. You are dressed in fine clothes; you own horses. Your boat is on the river; you are supplied with attendants. You stride about inspecting. A mansion is built in your town. You have a power­ful office, given you by the king. Male and female slaves are about you. Those who are in the fields grasp your hand, on plots that you have made. Look I make you into a staff of life! Put the writings in your heart, and you will be protected from all kinds of toil. You will become a worthy official.

Some of the responsible and influential positions in the administration to which a scribe could aspire were:
  • scribe of the treasury
  • scribe of the divine offerings of Amun
  • scribe of recruits
  • scribe of the royal workmen
  • scribe of the granary
  • scribe of pbaraoh's fields
  • scribe of pharaoh's despatches.

Artisans

(See 3.2 for artisans)

Agricultural workers

Difficulties faced by the peasant farmer


Not only could life be made very difficult for the farmer by an overzealous scribe but he had to face the possibility of seasonal catastrophes (low flood levels, drought, famine, plagues) as well as heavy taxation and the annual corvee.

The misfortunes faced by farmers are outlined by a scribe in the Lansing Papyrus. Although many of the problems are exaggerated, there is probably an element of truth in the scribe's account.

The annual corvee


Since the Egyptian way of life was based on successful farming which in turn depended on a 'good' Nile flood, careful management of the land and water supplies was essential. Centralised management was particularly helpful when catastrophes, such as drought, affected the annual harvests.

To carry out large‑scale water and land management as well as deal with the emergency tasks immediately after the flood, the government conscripted labour. This was called the corvee. Gangs of men were put to work, sometimes far from their homes, under the authority of a high local official who coordinated their activities. Although most men were eligible for this duty, some were exempt because of their special rank or occupation. A wealthy man could pay for a substitute to take his place in these gangs. So the bulk of those who were conscripted were the farmers, field workers and slaves. This was the worst aspect of a farmer's life.

Taxes


No peasant looked forward to the arrival of the tax collector at harvest time. Not only did the farmer pay a large portion of his harvested grain but he was also taxed on any yearly increase in livestock (eg, cattle, geese). For this reason, a yearly census was carried out. The produce of the farmer's orchards, gardens and vineyards was also taxed. Once the tax had been paid, there was very little left for the farmer's basic needs.

From the evidence in a number of tomb scenes which show farmers being punished for dishonesty, and the example cited by the scribe in the Lansing Papyrus, it appears that some peasants tried to cheat the tax collector. To a certain extent this was overcome by the New Kingdom practice of measuring the height of crops and assessing the amount of tax payable before the crops were harvested.

Cattle herders


Herds of cattle were found on every estate. Even peasants had their own animals for ploughing and threshing. Cattle were raised not only for their meat and milk and as beasts of burden, but for ritual purposes. In many tombs, officials are shown inspecting and counting their cattle and overseeing the branding of their animals. However, only an overseer of cattle would show details of stables, fodder preparation and cat­tle feeding (eg, Haty, Counter of Cattle of the God's Wife of Amun).

The herders who looked after the cattle lived a harsher life than the farmers. As they moved constantly with their herds in search of the best grasses, they had to safely negotiate swamps and crocodile­ infested waters. During the flood, they hand fed the cattle in their sta­bles. The cattle byre was the herder's home.

Now when it had dawned and another day had come… he took bread for himself for the fields, and he drove his cattle to let them eat in the fields. He walked behind his cattle, and they would say to him: 'The grass is good in such and such a place'. And he heard all they said and took them to the place of good grass that they desired.
Now when many days had passed… he returned to his house... Then he drank and ate and went to sleep in his stable among his cattle.

The herders guarded their animals closely as they were punished severely if any were stolen, seized by a crocodile, or died of disease. When the time came for the cattle inspection and census, the herdsmen were expected to bring in a herd larger than the previous year.

Thus the cattle he tended became exceedingly fine, and they increased their offspring very much.

Life in a peasant village


For most of the year the farmers probably lived fairly independent lives in their mud‑brick villages, without too much interference from the authorities.

The houses in these peasant villages varied in size depending on the number of people in the extended family. Because mud‑bricks were easy to make and use, additions to the basic dwellings were simple to build. Each family probably had a small vegetable garden and a few domesticated animals.

It is highly likely that marriages were arranged with close relatives to keep what little property the peasants had within the family. As in most classes, the woman's chief duty was in the home but some are shown helping their husbands in the fields ‑ gleaning, harvesting flax, winnowing, carrying baskets to the storehouses and providing refreshments.

Within the village, women probably exchanged goods with one another, and to supplement the family income they could set up a stall in the local market. There they could convert any surplus beer, bread, vegetables or fish into other items needed by the family. The tomb of Ipuy depicts such a market scene.

Although the peasants worked hard, they are also shown relaxing and enjoying themselves with a drink of beer and joking with their companions. Boating and fishing were other popular activities.

Annual religious festivals gave them the opportunity to take a break from the seasonal routine. During these holidays they probably took the opportunity to view the glittering religious processions and even possibly catch a glimpse of the king.

(See also 1.1 for agricultural workers)