Instead of lumping him in with the other admittedly remarkable Egyptian artifacts I viewed, I decided to give the Seated Scribe a post all his own. He deserves it because – his pudginess notwithstanding – he’s a masterpiece. Even though he’s anonymous (we don’t know his name, title, or the exact period in which he lived) he’s still one of the foremost, famous, and recognizable figures in the Department of Egyptian Antiquities at the Louvre.
The Seated ScribePainted limestone with rock crystal, magnesite, and copper/arsenic inlay for the eyes and wood for the nipples, found in Saqqara. Dynasty 5, c. 2510-2460 BC.
He sits cross-legged, in the most common posture for scribes. He is not highly-stylized like the pharoanic sculptures with their wigs, lavish clothing, and hieroglyphics. He wears only a simple white kilt which supports his partially-rolled scroll of papyrus. It is obvious that his right hand originally held a reed pen which has long since disappeared.
Pay close attention to his eyes, his most striking feature. (My mom used to say that about me!) Inlaid, they consist of a piece of red-veined white magnesite, in which a piece of rock crystal has been placed. The front part of the crystal was carefully polished. The back side was covered with a layer of organic material, creating the color of the iris and also probably serving as an adhesive. The entire eye was then held in the socket by two large copper clips welded on the back. An off-center hole was drilled in the back of each to give the appearance of the pupil – ingenious! A line of black paint defines the eyebrows.
His cap of hair is cut close to the skull. The hands, fingers, and fingernails are sculpted remarkably realistically. His chest is broad and the nipples are marked by two wooden dowels. The “middle-age spread” of his abdomen might be a mark of his high status and certainly of his sedentary occupation.
Egyptian scribes trained from childhood. We know there were at least some female scribes because a word has been found for them, but generally, of course, most were men. They learned reading, writing, and also arithmetic, algebra, religion, and law. It was a demanding profession but it was not without satisfying rewards as noted in a book of instruction: “Become a scribe so that your limbs remain smooth and your hands soft, and you can wear white and walk like a man standing whom [even] courtiers will greet.” A high-ranking scribe with a reputation as a great scholar could hope to be appointed to one of several “houses of life,” where lay scribes and priestly scribes together copied, compiled, studied, and repaired valuable sacred and scientific texts. These completed texts were places in “houses of books,” some of the earliest known libraries. (I love libraries!)
There’s so much that can be been said – and has been said! – about the Seated Scribe. Some of my favorite sources for more in-depth information (which, really, you will not regret delving into) include:
- A closer look at the Seated Scribe. Here the Louvre has outdone itself in giving detailed background into many aspects of the Seated Scribe, from his characteristics, to the materials used to create him, to his history and discovery in Saqqara, about 30 miles from the great funereal grounds at Giza.
- Seated Scribe from the Art History Timeline. A short summary of why this sculpture in particular is so important in Egyptian and in all art.
- And, here’s a wonderful discussion and video on the Seated Scribe from Khan Academy:
The Seated Scribe is unusual in its naturalism, lively alertness, and informality, and is magnificent in its preserved detail and in all he has to teach us!
Stokstad, Marilyn. (1995). Art History. Prentice Hall Publishers.
Louvre. The Seated Scribe.
Almost everyone has seen this image of the Seated Scribe. Located on the upper floor of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities, this is the most famous of unknown figures. We know nothing about the person portrayed: neither his name, nor title, nor even the exact period during which he lived. Nevertheless, this statue never fails to impress visitors discovering it for the first time.
A specific posture
The Louvre's scribe, known as the "Seated Scribe", is indeed sitting cross-legged, his right leg crossed in front of his left. The white kilt, stretched over his knees, serves as a support. He is holding a partially rolled papyrus scroll in his left hand. His right hand must have held a brush, now missing. The most striking aspect of this sculpture is the face, particularly the elaborately inlaid eyes: they consist of a piece of red-veined white magnesite, in which a piece of slightly truncated rock crystal was placed. The front part of the crystal was carefully polished. The back side was covered with a layer of organic material, creating the color of the iris and also probably serving as an adhesive. The entire eye was then held in the socket by two large copper clips welded on the back. A line of black paint defines the eyebrows. The hands, fingers, and fingernails are sculpted with a remarkable delicacy. His chest is broad and the nipples are marked by two wooden dowels. The statue was cleaned in 1998, although the process merely reduced the wax overpainting. This restoration brought out the well-conserved ancient polychromy.
An unknown figure
The semicircular base on which the figure sits must have originally fit into a larger base that carried his name and titles, such as the base for the statue of Prince Setka, exhibited in room 22 of the Louvre. This base is missing, and the context of the discovery does not provide any additional information. According to the archeologist Auguste Mariette, who found the work, the statue of the scribe was apparently discovered in Saqqara on 19 November 1850, to the north of the Serapeum's line of sphinxes. But the precise location is not known; unfortunately, the documents concerning these excavations were published posthumously, the excavation journals had been lost, and the archives were scattered between France and Egypt. Furthermore, the site had been pillaged and ransacked, and no information concerning the figure's identity could be provided. Some historians have tried to link it to one of the owners of the statues discovered at the same time. The most convincing of these associates the scribe to Pehernefer. Certain stylistic criteria, such as the thin lips, which was unusual, the form of the torso, and the broad chest could support this theory. The statue of Pehernefer dates from the 4th Dynasty. This is an additional argument in favor of an earlier dating for this statue, which has sometimes been dated to the 6th Dynasty. Another argument supporting this date is that "writing" scribes were mostly created in the 4th and early 5th Dynasties; after this period, most scribes were portrayed in "reading" poses.
A scribe at work
The scribe is portrayed at work, which is unusual in Egyptian statuary. Although no king was ever portrayed in this pose, it seems that it was originally used for members of the royal family, such as the king's sons or grandsons, as was the case for the sons of Didufri (4th Dynasty), who were represented in this position.
BibliographyBouquillon Anne, "La couleur et les pigments", in Techne 4, 1996, p. 55, fig. 6.
Catalogue, L'Art égyptien au temps des pyramides, Paris, 1999,
Ziegler Christiane, Le Scribe "accroupi", collection solo (21), Paris, 2002.
Ziegler Christiane, Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités égyptiennes, Les Statues égyptiennes de l'Ancien Empire, Paris 1997, n 58, pp. 204-208.