Statue of a Seated Scribe

This seated scribe statue is considered to be the icon of all scribe statues and one of the most important symbols of sculpture at the Egyptian Museum. It is called the “Cairo Scribe” and is carved in painted limestone. It was unearthed in 1893 at the Saqqara necropolis.

The scribe wears a wig with a central parting as was fashionable in the Old Kingdom, and his eyes are inlaid to express his wisdom and the depth of his psyche. His gaze gives one the impression that he is meditating and thinking about what he will write so that he appears to be at the very moment of the inspiration and creation of an intellectual work.

Statue of a Seated Scribe
Statue of a Seated Scribe. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 30272; CG 36

The level of his gaze is high, probably because the artist wanted to show that he was looking far away, pondering what he was about to write. His wig doesn’t fully cover his ears to help him hear clearer, the writing instrument is lost since eternity.

Unfortunately we don’t know the name of this scribe. The Central Bank of Egypt issued 200 Egyptian pounds that depict the statue of the Seated scribe in 2007. These banknotes are still in circulation.

The scribe’s job was one of the most important in ancient Egypt, for he was the representative of culture, science, knowledge, and literature.

In this regard, scribes are considered the main founders of its civilization. The scribe’s role was largely administrative, but also preserved Egypt’s stories and oral traditions, just like writers today continue to fulfill the same role.

The priesthood scribes in temples thus played a great part in the preservation of ancient texts through editing and revising religious, theological, ritual, medical, and magical texts. The god Thoth, represented as Ibis bird or baboon, was a patron of scribes in ancient Egypt.

Statue of a Seated Scribe
Statue of a Seated Scribe

“Some treatises written for copying by apprentice scribes go through all the occupations, exaggerating the disadvantages of each, and stressing the opportunities open to a scribe.

This in the Satire on Trades, the scribe boasts: ‘I have never seen a sculptor sent on an embassy, not a bronze-founder leading a mission. But I have seen the metal-smith working in the very mouth of the furnace. His fingers are like crocodile’s claws. He stinks like a rotten fish-roe.'”

The Civilization of Ancient Egypt, by Paul Johnson

Writing played a major role throughout ancient Egyptian history, and the scribe was a figure of great importance and one of the highest positions in the state due to his work in temples and royal palaces. Scribes also occupied a political position, because they kept royal secrets.

There were several types of scribes, including the royal scribe, the temple scribe, and the daily life scribe, making sure that all administrative and economic activities were documented.

All activities that involved the use of writing were the responsibility of the sekhau, the scribe. This was a figure that stood out transversally in Egyptian society.

Statue of a Seated Scribe
Statue of a Seated Scribe. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 30272; CG 36

A sekhau, in fact, could be a temple or administrative centre official, a military man, a doctor, a priest and even a painter, sculptor or architect.

The position could be handed down from father to son, but not only that; in fact, sources also speak of scribes who accepted young men from other families as pupils regardless of the father’s profession.

Although the teaching of writing remained reserved for those who were destined for a profession that required it in some way, almost anyone could potentially become a sekhau and become culturally and socially emancipated.

Today, there are many statues of ancient Egyptian scribes in museums, as these officials were keen to portray themselves as important and evidence of the society’s keenness on science and education.

Old Kingdom, 5th Dynasty, ca. 2494-2345 BC. Now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo. JE 30272; CG 36