Egyptian scribes suffered work-related injuries, study finds | Archeology

From back problems to eye strain, office work can take its toll on the body.

But it seems such dangers are nothing new: researchers have discovered that Egyptian scribes suffered damage to their hips, jaws, and thumbs as a result of their efforts.

Experts studying the remains of scribes buried in the Abusir necropolis, Egypt, between 2700 and 2180 BC say that, compared to men doing other jobs, the administrators showed signs of degenerative changes in their joints.

“Our study should provide an answer to the question of what occupational risk factors were associated with the ‘profession’ of scribe in ancient Egypt,” said Petra Brukner Havelková, first author of the study, at the National Museum in Prague. She added that the work could also help identify scribes among skeletons of people whose titles or profession were unknown.

In the journal Scientific Reports, the team recounted how they analyzed the remains of 69 adult males from Abusir dating back to the third millennium BC, of ​​whom 30 were known to be scribes.

Since only 1% of the population could read and write, these men had a high social status and performed crucial administrative work. Veronika Dulíková, co-author of the study from Charles University in Prague, said scribes were known to start working as teenagers in a professional career that may have lasted decades.

However, it seems that the work may have taken its toll. While the team found small differences in the prevalence of certain skeletal traits between scribes and non-scribes, suggesting that the two groups were very similar, scribes almost always had a higher incidence of certain changes.

These included osteoarthritis in the joints between the lower jaw and the skull, the right collarbone, the right shoulder, the right thumb, the right knee, and the spine, especially the neck.

The team also found telltale signs of physical stress in the humerus and left hip bone, as well as depressions in the kneecaps and changes in the right ankle.

While the researchers noted that some of the changes could have been influenced by some of the scribes being older at death, they said the results were consistent with the cross-legged or one-legged squatting postures that the scribes have been depicted adopting in ancient art, with their arms unsupported and their head forward, a position that puts pressure on the spine.

They said changes around the jaw could also be related to such postures, or to the scribes’ habit of chewing their reed tools to make a brush-like head. Changes in the thumb could be associated with the pinch-grip scribes used to hold pens.

Brukner Havelková said that it was very likely that scribes suffered from headaches at least occasionally, and there was evidence that they also experienced jaw dislocations. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they also suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome in their hand, but unfortunately we can’t identify it in the bones,” she said.

Professor Sonia Zakrzewski, a bioarchaeology expert at the University of Southampton, who was not involved in the research, welcomed the study.

“It’s a really interesting hypothesis, as we know that repeated activity leads to skeletal changes and these are very plausible activities,” he said.

However, Professor Alice Roberts of the University of Birmingham said that in the absence of comparisons with modern people, it was difficult to argue that the changes identified were actually related to activities and postures related to being a scribe.

“It has proven very difficult to link arthritic changes in ancient skeletons to any profession (or) activity with any degree of precision,” he said.

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