Objects For Eternity

Description of an ancient Egyptian scribal  palette. Sound of Lee Scratch Perry ‘holding the palette freely’

Each of the inkwells is surrounded by the hieroglyphic sign shen, which not only means “encircle”, but also represents “everything the sun encircles”, i.e. the universe. This shen sign is often found on scribal pallets, but the reason for this is uncertain. Generally speaking the shen ring is a protective symbol, and on scribal palettes it may refer to royal protection, for the king’s name was written within a shen ring (cartouche). Although not every scribe bore the prestigious title “royal scribe”, all scribes were ultimately in the service of the king. The scribe who “holds the palette freely” has “a powerful office given to him by the king”, he is “one whom the king trusts”.1 All other professions are inferior to that of the scribe, for he alone records the output of all other occupations. Scribes were well aware of this powerful position and extolled the virtues of their craft in poems which are often found in schoolbooks. Perhaps the shen shaped inkwells even refer to the universal character of the scribal profession; like their patron god Thoth, the “lord of the god’s words” and the inventor of the art of writing, they administered “everything which exists”.


Dr J van Dijk, Scribal palette, in, Objects for Eternity.  Egyptian Antiquities from W. Arnold Meijer Collection


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