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Social Structure of Ancient Egypt: Scribes and Workers
Posted In: Ancient Civilizations  2/12/12
By: Yona Williams

In Egypt, there were two types of workers that existed during ancient times – the unskilled workers and the craftsmen who were skilled at their trade. In this article, you will learn more about working-class people, such as scribes, farmers and skilled workers.

The Scribes of Ancient Egypt

During early times in Egypt, the scribe was a significant component of the social structure of the land. In those days, only scribes and priests knew how to read and write. The history and communication of the land were left up to the educated. One of the tasks a scribe had to undertake was memorizing hieroglyphic symbols and learning how to use them. In addition to keeping records of the civilization, the scribe would also hold supervisory roles within society.

Scribes often fell into their positions because they were inherited. The same families would see generations upon generations take on the role and responsibility. Schools were set up in temple courtyards to teach the scribes. Because of his skills, a scribe did not have to undergo the hard manual labor that most of the other members of society had to endure.

Workers of the Land – Unskilled Workers & Skilled Craftsmen

The unskilled workers were peasants that worked in large groups to make sure hefty projects were completed. Usually, they worked on government endeavors. A prime example of what unskilled laborers were expected to do includes working for the government during the flood season. Afterwards, they would return home to raise crops on their farms. All throughout the year, skilled craftsmen would work on their creations. In Egypt, common skills included sculpting, goldsmithing, painting, carpentry, and rock cutting.

Farmers

Living in homes made out of mud bricks and dirt floors, men and boys worked the fields – irrigating the crops using a tool called a shaduf, which transported water from a river into a canal. The farmer's wives spent their time baking bread, brewing beer, spinning thread and then weaving it into different items.

The flood months of June to September saw the farmers completing jobs for the government. This type of service was referred to as corvee duty. Farmers who were wealthier or people that held an official post were allowed to buy their way out of the service. Those who did serve the duty worked on large projects, including temples or a pyramid.

Slaves and Peasants

During Egyptian times, it is estimated that peasants made up as much as 80% of the population. Most of them were put in the field to work – producing crops, while others went to take positions as servants in the homes of wealthy nobles. When the flood season arrived, the peasants often worked on large building projects for the government that could take up to three months at a time.  The majority of slaves during ancient Egyptian times were typically prisoners of war.

While the infamous pyramids are often seen as being built by slaves, there really is no concrete proof in history to make this conclusion. Historical evidence leads one to believe that farmers and other workers were employed during the flood season to construct the pyramids and other larger buildings. In the Middle Kingdom, the number of slaves greatly increased in Egypt. However, during the Old Kingdom, which is when the pyramids were built – there is no evidence of large groups of slaves in the region.

The concept of slavery was different during ancient Egyptian times. Being a slave did not mean that you were completely owned by another – you could own your own land, marry someone that was free and even have your own servants.


 

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