Tag Archives: scribe


Calligraphy is a word that means ‘beautiful writing.’

Remember the Egyptians used reed pens to write, but since they were drawing images—pictures of things—the nib was kept narrow or else they used a fine-tipped brush. I’m not sure when it happened, but either Greek or Roman scribes began drawing letters with a broad-nibbed pen (a nib is the tip). They became concerned about the angle of the pen when they wrote. They kept their pens always at the same angle, so that a group of letters would have a pleasing consistency. Or maybe they used a chisel-tipped brush. Several calligraphers I link to below use a brush.*

In Italian a serif is called a ‘grazia,’ a grace:
You can even use a chisel-point marker for calligraphy:

* The idea of writing with thick and thin strokes may well have come from the Muslim world, where the Phoenician abjad was evolving into Arabic script. I’ll look into that.

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Okay, we got the paper, we got the pens and brushes—now we need the medium: ink.

Medium (singular), media (plural) are Latin words.

Medium is the word we artists use when we talk about the substance used to make marks—ink, paint, crayon, pencil, pastel, chalk. Every medium needs 2 parts: pigment and binder. The pigment is the color. You get pigment from vegetable, animal, or mineral sources. The binder is what holds the pigment together and makes it stick to a surface like paper. Liquid medium needs a third part: solvent.

To get black pigment, the Egyptians used the same stuff they did in pre-historic times: burned bones. When bones burn they turn black and brittle. The scribes ground them into a powder. You can use charcoal from wood, too.

This is a stone mortar and pestle—the tools you use to grind something into a powder.

To hold the powder together, they used the sap from the acacia tree. It’s called Gum Arabic and is still used in watercolor today. Gum Arabic is water-soluble. The Egyptian scribes would dry out the gum, grind it into a powder, mix it with burnt-bone powder and add water. They might add very little water to make a thick paste which they could form into a cake.

The round shapes at the top of this scribe’s kit are ink-cakes.

After the cake dried, a scribe could carry it around with him and reactivate the ink by adding a bit of water with his brush. Water is the solvent. If you’ve painted with a box of pan watercolors you understand what I mean. The scribe wrote on the papyrus with brush or pen and when the ink dried the pigment stayed there for thousands of years.

A set of pan watercolors

When they’re exposed to water and air, metals oxidize or corrode. As they do, they produce a colored outer layer. The Egyptians got red pigment by scraping the rust from iron. They got green or blue by scraping the corrosion off of copper.

The egyptologist in this article says ‘infers’ but he means ‘implies:’
This book is a must-read if you’re interested in color:

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Papyrus brushes

Not only can you make paper and pens from the papyrus reed, you can make brushes, too! It’s like those Egyptians never needed to go to the art supply store. They just waded into the Nile and grabbed a reed.

As I understand it, you chew on the end of a thin reed until the pith is soft enough to be flexible and absorb ink. You can trim it with a pair of scissors or a sharp knife to get a point.


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How come Egyptian hieroglyphics are recognizable to us, but Sumerian cuneiform isn’t?

Two words: art supplies.

The Sumerian scribes used a stylus to make marks in soft clay. A stylus pokes indentations into clay, but not strokes. They were limited to wedge-shapes because if they’d tried to draw a curve there would be a build-up of clay on one side of the stroke, like when a snow plow clears a road.

The Egyptians wrote on paper—to be specific, papyrus (pah PIE roos). Papyrus is a reed that grows around the Nile River delta. They found that you can soak the pith (the insides) of the reeds until it becomes soft, then pound it flat. The flattened strips are woven into a sheet, pressed and left to dry. When the sheet’s dry you can write or draw on it.

You cut the skin off a papyrus reed with a knife, leaving the pith. The pith is cut into strips.

Soak the pith strips in water.

The strips are rolled flat.

The strips are woven into a sheet and left to dry under some heavy weight.

Ta-da! It’s a sheet of papyrus!

(I was right—the papyrus reed is triangular in cross-section. I hadn’t lost my marbles after all.)

Here are two scribes, one writes in cuneiform and one writes in hieroglyphics.

Watch some experts make papyrus:

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Learn to be a scribe! Earn big money!

A scribe is—or was—someone people hired to write and read cuneiform. As I mentioned, cuneiform wasn’t easy to read. You had to go to a special ‘tablet-school’ to learn how. Both boys and girls went to tablet-school. All you needed was lots of money to pay for it. Once you graduated, you were set for life in the scribe business. Scribes always had work and were at the top of Sumerian society.

Cuneiform was used to record several languages. Cuneiform symbols had different meanings in different contexts. A scribe had to know if he were reading an invoice or a royal decree or a poem. These symbols were pictograms and ideograms. Some symbols represented a sound, too, so cuneiform was sometimes a phonetic writing system. These sounds were syllables.

Wait a minute, how does that work? Well, it works like a rebus. You’ve seen rebus puzzles in kids’ magazines. For the word ‘syllable,’ you’d write this:

Sill + a + bull.

Most spoken languages have hundreds—if not thousands—of different syllables, so cuneiform needed a load of symbols.

Aaaaand, it’s important to realize that writing didn’t have much resemblance to how people spoke. That seems weird to us now, because we have an alphabet that’s designed to track the spoken word as closely as possible. The best way I can describe cuneiform is to compare it to coding, like for a website.

Here’s a very good post about scribes: https://allmesopotamia.wordpress.com/2015/06/26/the-lives-of-scribes-in-ancient-mesopotamia/
Here’s a nice character design of a lady scribe by artist Beth Hobbs: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/qqwOn

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