A 4,000-Year-Old Student ‘Writing Board’ from Ancient Egypt (with Teacher’s Corrections in Red)

Amer­i­cans raised on Lau­ra Ingalls Wilder’s Lit­tle House books tend to asso­ciate slates with one room school­hous­es and rote exer­cis­es involv­ing read­ing, writ­ing and ‘rith­metic.

Had we been reared along the banks of the Nile, would our minds go to ancient ges­soed boards like the 4000-year-old Mid­dle King­dom exam­ple above?

Like our famil­iar tablet-sized black­boards, this paper — or should we say papyrus? — saver was designed to be used again and again, with white­wash serv­ing as a form of eras­er.

As Egyp­tol­o­gist William C. Hayes, for­mer Cura­tor of Egypt­ian Art at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um wrote in The Scepter of Egypt: A Back­ground for the Study of the Egypt­ian Antiq­ui­ties in The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art. Vol. 1, From the Ear­li­est Times to the End of the Mid­dle King­dom, the writ­ing board at the top of the page:

…bears parts of two mod­el let­ters of the very for­mal and ultra-poite vari­ety addressed to a supe­ri­or offi­cial. The writ­ers con­sis­tent­ly refer to them­selves as “this ser­vant” and to their addressees as “the Mas­ter (may he live, pros­per, and be well.)” The longer let­ter was com­posed and writ­ten by a young man named Iny-su, son of Sekhsekh, who calls him­self a “Ser­vant of the Estate” and who, prob­a­bly in jest, has used the name of his own broth­er, Peh-ny-su, as that of the dis­tin­guished addressee. Fol­low­ing a long-wind­ed pre­am­ble, in which the gods of Thebes and adja­cent towns are invoked in behalf of the recip­i­ent, we get down to the text of the let­ter and find that it con­cerns the deliv­ery of var­i­ous parts of a ship, prob­a­bly a sacred bar­que. In spite of its for­mal­i­ty and fine phrase­ol­o­gy, the let­ter is rid­dled with mis­spellings and oth­er mis­takes which have been cor­rect­ed in red ink, prob­a­bly by the mas­ter scribe in charge of the class.

Iny-su would also have been expect­ed to mem­o­rize the text he had copied out, a prac­tice that car­ried for­ward to our one-room-school­hous­es, where chil­dren droned their way through texts from McGuf­fey’s Eclec­tic Read­ers.

Anoth­er ancient Egypt­ian writ­ing board in the Met’s col­lec­tion finds an appren­tice scribe fum­bling with imper­fect­ly formed, uneven­ly spaced hiero­glyphs.

Fetch the white­wash and say it with me, class — prac­tice makes per­fect.

The first tablet inspired some live­ly dis­cus­sion and more than a few punch­lines on Red­dit, where com­menter The-Lord-Moc­casin mused:

I remem­ber read­ing some­where that Egypt­ian stu­dents were taught to write by tran­scrib­ing sto­ries of the awful lives of the aver­age peas­ants, to moti­vate and make them appre­ci­ate their edu­ca­tion. Like “the farmer toils all day in the burn­ing field, and prays he does­n’t feed the lions; the fish­er­man sits in fear on his boat as the croc­o­dile lurks below.”

Always thought it sound­ed effec­tive as hell.

We can’t ver­i­fy it, but we sec­ond that emo­tion.

Note: The red mark­ings on the image up top indi­cate where spelling mis­takes were cor­rect­ed by a teacher.

via @ddoniolvalcroze

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Orig­i­nal Col­ors Still In It

Who Built the Egypt­ian Pyra­mids & How Did They Do It?: New Arche­o­log­i­cal Evi­dence Busts Ancient Myths

What Ancient Egypt­ian Sound­ed Like & How We Know It

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (3)
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  • Imrana Rafat says:

    It is quite fas­ci­nat­ing to see that it has been marked using cor­rec­tion codes! That’s what we, as teach­ers, are encour­aged to fol­low in our present times.

  • Mike Anderson says:

    To all those thumb­suck­ers in the Schools of Edu­ca­tion who trem­ble at the thought of “doing vio­lence” to their stu­dents by mark­ing up papers with red ink, I say FIE! My red pen and I are backed by 4000 years of tra­di­tion, dat­ing back to Ancient Egypt!

  • Adriana Echandía-Butler X says:

    Because they did it 4000 years ago does not mean that it’s good. Many the prac­tices of the “old days” have now been proven to be detri­men­tal to the peo­ple who prac­ticed it. For exam­ple, the farm­ing prac­tices of the Egyp­tians left the dirt deplet­ed of nutri­ents hence the lat­er star­va­tion and ulti­mate demise of the pop­u­la­tion. There are many exam­ples that show mod­ern prac­tices to be more ben­e­fi­cial. Progress, my friend. The advances in education/training also go “way back.” In fact, the whole thing about the BEST way to cor­rect errors has been stud­ied by the mil­i­tary (spoil­er alert- in one fight­er pilots learned faster in the group where the instruc­tor was not yelling at the pilot.

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