July 13, 2024

From bad backs to eye strain, office work can take its toll on the body.

But it turns out such dangers are nothing new: researchers found that Egyptian scribes experienced damage to their hips, jaws and thumbs as a result of their efforts.

Experts studying the remains of scribes buried between 2700 and 2180 BC in the necropolis at Abusir, Egypt, say that, compared to men who undertook other jobs, the administrators showed signs of degenerative joint changes.

“Our study should provide an answer to the question of which occupational risk factors were associated with the ‘profession’ of scribe in ancient Egypt,” said Petra Brukner Havelková, the first author of the study, at the National Museum in Prague. She added that the work could also help identify scribes among skeletons of individuals whose titles or occupations were not known.

In the journal Scientific reportstold the team how they analyzed the remains of 69 adult men from Abusir dating to the third millennium BC, 30 of whom were known to have been scribes.

With only 1% of the population able to read and write, such men had an elevated social status and undertook important administrative work. Veronika Dulíková, a co-author of the study from Charles University in Prague, said scribes are known to have started working as teenagers in a professional career that may have lasted decades.

However, it appears the work has taken a toll. While the team found small differences in the prevalence of certain skeletal characteristics between scribes and non-scribes, suggesting that the two groups were very similar, scribes almost always had a higher incidence of certain changes.

These include osteoarthritis in the joints between the lower jaw and the skull, the right collarbone, the right shoulder, the right thumb, the right knee and the spine – especially in the neck.

The team also found clear signs of physical stress on the humerus and left hip bone, as well as depressions in the kneecaps and changes in the right ankle.

While the researchers noted that some of the changes could have been influenced by the fact that some of the scribes were older when they died, they said the results were consistent with the cross-legged or one-legged crouching postures that scribes depicted in ancient art, with their arms unsupported and their head forward – a position that puts stress on the spine.

They said changes around the jaw could also be linked to such postures, or the habit of scribes to chew their rabbit tools to make a brush-like head. Changes in the thumb may be associated with the pinching grips used to hold the pins.

Brukner Havelková said it was most likely that scribes suffered from headaches at least occasionally, with evidence that they also experienced jaw dislocations. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they also suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome on the hand, but unfortunately we can’t identify it on the legs,” she said.

Prof Sonia Zakrzewski, an expert in bioarchaeology from the University of Southampton, who was not involved in the research, welcomed the study.

“This is a very good hypothesis as we know that repeated activity leads to skeletal change and these are very plausible activities,” she said.

However, Prof Alice Roberts of the University of Birmingham said that with no comparisons in modern humans, it was difficult to argue that the changes identified were really linked to activities and attitudes associated with scribalism.

“It has been notoriously difficult to link arthritic changes in ancient skeletons to any occupations [or] activities with any degree of accuracy,” she said.

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