Sexism in Ancient Egypt?

Last night’s meeting of the Egypt Society of Bristol saw a lecture on Egyptian graffiti by Dr Hana Navratilova of the Griffith Institute in Oxford. This did not mean Egyptian kids spray-painting anti-government slogans on walls in Cairo. It meant Egyptian scribes from the 18th and 19th dynasties writing on the walls of more ancient temples and tombs. Graffiti, it seems, has a very long history.

Possibly we should not be surprised that the vast majority of what these scribes wrote was their contemporary equivalent of “Kilroy was here”. Being what passed for academics in ancient Egypt, they also couldn’t resist noting that they knew who was buried in each individual tomb they wrote on, even if it was hundreds of years old. And because Egyptian culture hadn’t changed that much in all that time, they also made a point of paying their respects to the departed.

For those interested in the technical side, the graffiti was normally written in hieratic script rather than full hieroglyphs. It was done mostly with brushes and black ink. To do good graffiti you had to refresh your brush frequently, otherwise what you wrote would soon fade away.

The people writing this graffiti were mostly scribes who were traveling for some reason, possibly visiting the monument on which they left their names. Most of the names left are male. Interestingly a few female-signed graffiti have also been found. However, as literacy was not universal in Egypt at the time we can’t be certain that these were made by women scribes. They may, for example, have been made by a scribe employed by a noblewoman who liked visiting ancient monuments.

Dr. Navratilova says that there is a lot more female-authored graffiti in Thebes, a major religious center, and that much of it relates to religious ceremonies. That sounds like it was being written by literate priestesses.

There is, however, one very famous piece of graffiti from Saqqara, the necropolis of Memphis. It is signed with a male name, and it goes something like this (I paraphrase because Dr. Navratilova recited it from memory and I can’t remember exactly what she said):

I’m horrified! Disgusted! There is some terrible writing on this wall, and it is by a crazy woman! This sort of thing shouldn’t be allowed!

Sadly the wall in question is in a very poor state of repair and it hasn’t been possible to identify the graffiti that Mr. Angry was complaining about. We don’t know whether he was angry about the quality of the handwriting, about what was written, or simply because the writer was a woman. However, the archaeologist who discovered this rant did say that it was made in very ugly handwriting. Maybe he was too angry to write well.

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