For a society whose elite were literate bureaucrats, education was obviously very important. The Satire on the Trades is only the best-known example from many texts designed for the training of young scribes, and whose message was the superiority of the life of the literate and in particular the duties of the scribe over any other occupation. Locating exactly where such training took place is rather more of a problem.
There were many situations where a formal location created specifically for group learning was not required, such as where an individual pupil visited a private tutor or a student learned through ‘on-the-job’ training. It might also be the case that a convenient space that could be used for a variety of purposes might be pressed into use for group teaching on a regular or occasional basis. All of these situations occurred in ancient Egypt.
Our most important source of evidence for educational activity in Egypt comes from the student exercises written on discarded ostraca. Ostraca, especially the important collection from Deir el-Medina, are a key source of documentation for the lives of ordinary Egyptians. They allow us an insight into the day-to-day community and its individual concerns that would otherwise be lost to us. The vast majority of these ostraca come from the New Kingdom, and especially from the Theban area, so it is dangerous to make broader assumptions from this evidence for formal education throughout Egypt and throughout Egyptian history. However, although some aspects of this evidence might relate to special cases (the villagers of Deir el-Medina and the officials of the great Theban temples), the picture that emerges does fit rather well into the pattern of what we know from other periods and places.
Evidence for actual schools – places where groups of children could be brought together for organized education – is rather scarce. The term usually used for such places – ‘t sb3 (at seba) ‘Place of Instruction’ – to describe a physical location is not very common. Where such evidence does exist, it comes mainly from major temple institutions of the New Kingdom in Thebes. This is not surprising since one of the most obvious groups of people who would need to be trained to read and write were the priests and administrators of the great temples of New Kingdom Egypt, and so it is from these major institutions that we find the most compelling evidence for specific areas being used for group teaching.
The best-known example is the Ramesseum at Thebes, where a large collection of ostraca was excavated in an area behind the main temple in the vicinity of the massive storerooms. These particular ostraca were not, as one might expect in this area, primarily administrative, recording the coming and going of goods from the storerooms themselves, but discarded school texts. It is tempting to think of this part of the temple enclosure at the Ramesseum as being a quiet place where young temple recruits could be trained.
Ostracon from Deir el-Medina containing a poem written by the scribe Amennakht in praise of his city, Thebes. Rutherford Picture Library.
This picture of temple education is supported by the autobiography of Bakenkhonsu, High Priest of Amun under Ramesses II, where he speaks of his childhood saying that:
I was a man of Thebes from my father and my mother, the son of the second priest of Amun in Karnak. I came out from the room of writing in the temple of the lady of the sky [i.e. the goddess Mut] as an excellent youngster.
I was taught to be a wab-priest in the domain of Amun, as a son under the guidance of [his] father.
This suggests that, in the Ramesside Period at least, major temples arranged for the education of the children of their officials, presumably with a view to their succession in those offices. The Bakenkhonsu text further suggests that major temples also had specific designated areas within them where such teaching was organized, perhaps rather like the area in the Ramesseum.
The other place one would expect to find education taking place is at court, where royal princes and the children of high-ranking Egyptian families would be trained in the governing skills they would need. Such activities would certainly have been carried out at the Kap in ‘Harem Palaces’. The use of the royal Residence as a place for the training of the children of the ruling elite of Egypt, including the provinces, is suggested in the introduction to the Satire on the Trades, which begins:
Beginning of the Instruction by the man of Tjaru, whose name is Dua-Khety, for his son called Pepi, as he journeyed south to the Residence, to place him in the school for scribes, among the sons of officials and the elite of the Residence.
It is easy to imagine that education at the Residence was a valued privilege, not only for the education it would bring, but also for the useful contacts that would be gained.
Wooden models of scribes often accompany Middle Kingdom tomb models showing the filling of granaries, indicating the importance of proper accounting. Heritage Images/Corbis.
The Deir el-Medina ostraca are especially important as a means of understanding how education was organized in New Kingdom Egypt, since a significant proportion of the workforce there – those who inscribed the walls of the royal tombs they worked on – had a particular need to be able to read and write. This is an unusual situation in a population where literacy rates were probably no more than 5 per cent.
Ostraca from Ramesside Deir el-Medina reflect a variety of educational setups. These include students who produced written exercises in their own time, which were then sent to a tutor to be marked and corrected. However, the only specific reference to a school within the ostraca themselves comes at the end of the 20th Dynasty, at which time the villagers had decamped to the temple-complex of Medinet Habu.
Although partly destroyed by the building of a temple to Hathor in the Ptolemaic Period (far left), the area to the north of the village of Deir el-Medina still contains a series of small temples and chapels, which were used for a variety of community activities. Steven Snape.
However, there is archaeological evidence from Deir el-Medina for specific places that could have been used as a school. One of these is the ‘chapels’, which, as we have seen, were not just used for private and small-scale religious worship, but provided a flexible space for a variety of social usages just outside the village. A group of about five ‘chapels’ at Deir el-Medina, referred to as area K2, produced a cache of 102 ostraca. Of this collection 90 were literary (rather than letters or administrative) in content, and many had significant corrections made to them, suggesting they were written by trainee scribes; 34 were sections of the prime educational texts Instruction of King Amenemhat, Satire on the Trades or the Kemyt.
The earliest reference to the ‘t sb3 (at seba) ‘Place of Instruction’ comes from the First Intermediate Period tomb of Khety at Asyut. Another tomb from a little later in the same period, that of Iti-ib-iker is particularly interesting: it was clearly visited often in the early New Kingdom as evidenced by more than 140 graffiti on its walls, most of which come from this period. These graffiti are not random scribbling – a significant number are copies of the sort of literary texts used in scribal training. The excavator of these tombs, German Egyptologist Jochem Kahl, has suggested that this tomb was used as ‘a destination for school excursions’, and it is clearly the case that a large ancient tomb would provide an ideal quiet place for teaching a class, while its walls would carry images that could act as teaching aids in their own right.