Have you ever received test papers back from your teacher all decorated in red ink? Don’t worry, you’re not the only one. This standard form of correcting students’ work is an ancient educational tradition—as evidenced by an ancient Egyptian writing board in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Dating to between 1981 and 1802 BCE, during the Middle Kingdom period, the gessoed board was a useful tool for apprentice scribes to practice their penmanship as they copied texts for their teachers to inspect.
As Egyptologist William C. Hayes, former Curator of Egyptian Art at the Metropolitan Museum wrote in The Scepter of Egypt: A Background for the Study of the Egyptian Antiquities in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vol. 1, From the Earliest Times to the End of the Middle Kingdom, the writing board at the top of the page:
…bears parts of two model letters of the very formal and ultra-poite variety addressed to a superior official. The writers consistently refer to themselves as “this servant” and to their addressees as “the Master (may he live, prosper, and be well.)” The longer letter was composed and written by a young man named Iny-su, son of Sekhsekh, who calls himself a “Servant of the Estate” and who, probably in jest, has used the name of his own brother, Peh-ny-su, as that of the distinguished 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. In spite of its formality and fine phraseology, the letter is riddled with misspellings and other mistakes which have been corrected in red ink, probably by the master scribe in charge of the class.
Iny-su would also have been expected to memorize the text he had copied out, a practice that carried forward to our one-room-schoolhouses, where children droned their way through texts from McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers.
The master scribe’s corrections appear in red ink—just one of the many colors available to Egyptian scribes. Archeologists have found rich and colorful pigments preserved in palettes left behind by ancient artisans. A standard writing palette might hold two colors of ink as well as reed brushes. The ink was mixed from pigment and a light gum. Before writing, the scribe might cut his reeds into a sharp point using a knife. For a more brush-like tip, he could also chew the end of the reed. Mistakes could be painted over or scraped away depending on the writing surface. Young Iny-su was just getting started with his career when he completed this writing assignment 4,000 years ago. Like other Egyptian scribes, he was a vital part of the kingdom’s everyday business.