4,000-Year-Old Tablet Shows Teachers Have Reached For The Red Pen For Centuries

October 9, 2023

This student needed to work on his spelling, it seems.

Ancient Egyptian writing board with hieratic text in black and red ink showing corrections made by master scribe.

And you thought your spelling tests were hard.

If this looks a lot like your homework from back in the day, you can take heart in the fact that teachers have been scribbling all over their students’ work with a red pen for at least the last 4,000 years. This gessoed board, currently held at The Met in New York, shows an Ancient Egyptian pupil’s attempt at writing practice – but in the eyes of the teacher, at least, there were a few errors to be corrected.

Boards like this one, which dates back to the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, were reusable. Much like the slate writing tablets that were a feature of classrooms until the early 20th century, the gesso coating – still used by artists as a primer today – allowed them to be whitewashed after every use, providing a clean surface for the next exercise. On the left of the board, you can see the remnants of old text that hadn’t quite been erased.

The writing used here isn’t exactly the same as the traditional hieroglyphics that we can still see adorning the walls of monuments and on ancient papyrus scrolls. The complexity of that script made it a bit impractical for your average scribe, so a more scribble-friendly cursive version called hieratic was developed around 3000 BCE.

We can learn a bit more about the student who produced this work from the late William C. Hayes, an Egyptologist who specialized in interpreting texts, in the first volume of his book The Scepter of Egypt. Hayes wrote that a young man by the name of Iny-su composed this piece as a way of practicing writing a letter of “the very formal and ultra-polite variety”, using the name of his own brother as his pretend addressee.

“Following a long-winded preamble, in which the gods of Thebes and adjacent towns are invoked in behalf of the recipient, we get down to the text of the letter and find that it concerns the delivery of various parts of a ship, probably a sacred barque,” Hayes explained.

Unfortunately for Iny-su, the master scribe teaching the class took issue with some of his phrasing and spelling, hence the added corrections in red ink. On top of all this, the poor guy would likely also have been expected to memorize the entire thing.

We reckon it’s worth an A for effort, at the very least.