Ancient Egyptian scribes’ work left its mark on their skeletons

Arthritis riddled scribes’ bones, reflecting the repetitive tasks of their career

A series of stone statues on a dark backdrop depicting an ancient Egyptian scribe.

The high dignitary Nefer (depicted in statues with his wife) was a scribe in ancient Abusir, Egypt. His skeleton and those of other scribes are inscribed with signs of their work.

Martin Frouz, Czech Institute of Egyptology/Charles University

Ancient Egyptian scribes’ life works are written on their bones.

Arthritis and other damage mark the scribes’ skeletons where the men sat cross-legged or kneeled hunched over papyrus scrolls, researchers describe June 27 in Scientific Reports.

Museum and university researchers from the Czech Republic examined the remains of 69 men entombed in the necropolis at Abusir, Egypt, dating from 2700 B.C. to 2180 B.C. Titles, paintings, tools and statues found in the tombs denoted 30 of the skeletons as scribes, high-ranking people who worked in various administrative positions and were engaged in writing and reading.

Being a scribe wasn’t a physically demanding job, but over time, it took its toll on select body parts, the researchers found. Scribes were more likely than their household members or other high-ranking people to have degenerative changes to their bones, especially in their upper bodies.

For instance, scribes chewed rushes to make brushes for writing. That left the men with arthritis in the temporomandibular joints (TMJ) of their jaws, the researchers found. About 16 percent to 38 percent of people today are estimated to have TMJ arthritis. A comparable 30 percent of the ancient non-scribes also had arthritis in their jaws, but in scribes, the rate was more than double at 64 percent. The work left similar wear-and-tear in particular spots from head to toe (see box).

Today’s scribes and scrollers might take heed of the ancient Egyptian scribe’s neck and jaw issues to sit a bit a straighter and look up from their phones once in a while.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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