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The Egyptians normally used a particular kind of writing surface for particular purposes. Papyrus, the most famous of Egyptian inventions, was not the most commonly used writing surface. Papyrus was relatively expensive but very durable so scribes used it for important texts that had to last a long time. Works of poetry, letters, and Books of the Dead preserved for eternity in tombs were normally written on papyrus using cursive hieroglyphs or hieratic and later Demotic or Coptic. Scribes made ostraca (singular: ostracon ) from large pieces of broken pots or from limestone chips. Ostraca were much cheaper and more plentiful than papyrus. Scribes used them to practice writing, nearly always in hieratic, but also for letters, contracts, and receipts. Students practiced writing literary texts on ostraca. Archaeologists have recovered thousands of ostraca on limestone from the artists’ village at Deir el-Medina, one of the few places where large numbers of literate, but relatively poorer people lived. Scribes also prepared wooden boards with a plaster surface to practice writing in hieratic. Some scholars believe these boards served as a display text, a kind of writing sample that could be used when a scribe wanted to find work. They preserve literary texts. Scribes also used leather as a writing surface, but very few examples have survived into modern times. Yet inscriptions on stone that are normally abbreviated sometimes include the information that the full text was written on leather and stored in the library. Tomb walls provided a writing surface for prayers, captions to sculptural reliefs, and, by the Sixth Dynasty, for extended biographies written either by or for the deceased. Many scholars view these biographies as the first literature in Egypt written with aesthetic values in mind. Temple walls provided a surface for kings to publish long inscriptions that proclaimed royal success in military matters or to describe rituals. Stelae (singular: stela )—upright, inscribed slabs of stone—provided a surface for writing prayers, historical accounts, and royal decrees. The Egyptians placed them in tombs, memorial chapels, and in temples of the gods. Tomb and temple walls and stelae preserve the most extensive inscriptions written with hieroglyphs. Scarabs—small images of beetles carved from stone or molded in faience with a smooth underside that could serve as a writing surface—also preserve kings’ names and, rarely, preserve extended historical texts. The faience scarabs were created in molds and constitute one means of publishing multiple copies other than writing copies by hand.


Some Egyptian works of literature still exist in multiple copies. Other works exist in only one sometimes heavily damaged copy. Scholars who hope to establish the popularity or importance of a particular work in ancient times are frustrated by the accidents of discovery and preservation that result in knowing dozens of partial copies of the The Story of Sinuhe but only one copy of The Shipwrecked Sailor , two works of Middle Egyptian literature. Multiple copies both complicate and facilitate the establishment of the true text of a particular work. There are almost always small variations in spelling and even word choice in different copies of the same work. With Sinuhe , many of these variations stem from the time period when the text was written. Sinuhe was a classic, composed and copied by scribes in the Middle Kingdom but still studied in the New Kingdom and Late Period. Sometimes multiple copies help modern scholars learn the meaning of the text. But other times, poorly written and spelled student copies frustrate and mislead modern scholars. Multiple copies can also complicate the determination of a text’s date of composition.


Scholars must attempt to distinguish between the date of composition and the date of a copy of a work of literature. The date of composition refers to the time when the author created the work. The date of the copy refers to the dates of copies made for the publication and dissemination of a work of literature, sometimes many years after the date of composition. It is not always easy to determine the date of composition. For example, an anonymous author composed the text known as The Teachings of Ptahhotep in the Middle Kingdom (2008 to after 1630 B.C.E. ) using as the narrator a vizier who lived in the reign of King Djedkare Isesy (2415–2371 B.C.E. ) during the Old Kingdom, approximately 400 years before the text was composed. Only one known copy of the text dates to the Middle Kingdom, the time of composition. The three other copies known to scholars all date to the New Kingdom (1539–1075 B.C.E. ) about 500 years after the composition and one thousand years after the setting found in the text. When scholars first examined the text, they assumed that Ptahhotep himself composed it in the Old Kingdom. In the late twentieth century, as scholars learned more about the differences between the dialects of the Old Kingdom (Old Egyptian) and the Middle Kingdom (Middle Egyptian) they realized that the language in the text mostly reflects the way scribes talked and composed in Middle Egyptian rather than Old Egyptian. This study resulted in reassigning the text to a composition date in the Middle Kingdom. Copies reveal their dates through the handwriting on them. The study of handwriting, called paleography, reveals that scribes used particular letter forms in particular periods. Paleographers compare the forms of particular signs found in dated copies to undated copies to establish the date of a copy. In general, scholars agree more often on the date of a copy than they do on the date of composition for particular texts. Dating texts, naturally, is central to any understanding of the history of Egyptian literature.


The Egyptians probably referred to literary works by the first line, using it as a title. Today scholars assign a name to Egyptian texts, but there is no authority that can impose one standard title on each text. Thus in different books it is possible to see The Tale of Sinuhe , The Story of Sinuhe , or even just Sinuhe used as the title of the Egyptians’ great national epic poem. In this book, the titles for the texts are listed in the section on the Egyptian literary canon near the end of the chapter. There are also some examples found in ancient literature that refer to the “Book of Sinuhe” using the word for “papyrus roll.”


Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature . Vol. I (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973).

Richard Parkenson and Stephen Quirke, Papyrus (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 1995).


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