The repetitive tasks of ancient Egyptian scribes contributed to premature wear and tear on their bodies

The repetitive tasks of ancient Egyptian scribes contributed to premature wear and tear on their bodies

The ancient Egyptian scribes enjoyed a distinguished position in society at that time because of their skills in reading and writing. However, the repetitive tasks of their work contributed to premature wear on their bodies. Analysis of the bones of scribes buried in the Abusir cemetery between 2700 and 2180 BC has shed light on degenerations caused by osteoarthritis in various specific sites of their skeleton, which the researchers describe as “risk factors associated with their professional activity.”

Petra Bruckner-Havelkova and colleagues from the Department of Anthropology of the National Museum in Prague and the Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University examined and compared the bones of 30 scribes and 39 men of lower social status.

Since the vast majority of the traits assessed did not differ between the two groups, the researchers concluded that the control group members had a lifestyle that was not physically demanding and thus similar to that of the scribes. “No one did hard work like a farm laborer,” they say. “They were probably members of the scribe’s family or people from the house who cleaned it.”

However, scribes were characterized by a higher incidence of “osteoarthritis and degenerative changes” in specific areas of the skeleton, such as the lower jaw, cervical vertebrae, shoulder, hand, knee, pelvic bone, and foot, which could lead, according to the authors, to the professional activity of scribes, which consisted of Repetitive tasks in a fixed position.

To explain their observations, the researchers relied on texts and reliefs on walls in tombs and statues that describe the way these government employees worked, devoting themselves to writing administrative documents. “They used a thin brush-like stylus and wrote on papyrus, pottery fragments or wooden tablets.”

See also  Vitamin D deficiency can cause chronic inflammation

To accomplish their tasks, they basically adopted three positions: the tailor's position (sitting on the floor, with their legs crossed), with their skirt serving as a writing table; the squatting position, with one leg on the knee and the other bent with the heel on the floor; and the standing position. “The chosen position probably depended on the conditions and environment in which the copyist carried out his activities, and one imagines that each individual tended to return to the position he preferred. Even if these positions and the movements performed did not require physical effort, repeating the same movements and maintaining these positions for long periods day after day may have affected certain areas of the skeleton in Scientific reports.

The neck is put on the line

One area that appeared significantly more affected in the scribes than in the control group was the spine, especially the cervical section, behind the neck. “All cervical vertebrae show degeneration, especially osteoporosis at the level of the protrusive joints (i.e. between the vertebrae). The most common is the C7 (inferior) cervical vertebra, which is located where the lordotic (concave) curve of the cervical spine ends and the kyphosis (convex curve) of the spine begins. Thoracic, one of the most vulnerable vertebrae, researchers suggest, accounts for a greater incidence of osteoarthritis among scribes than in the control group, which can result from constant overload on the cervical spine.

In a typist's typical working position, the head is tilted forward and the spine also curves to accommodate the distance between the eyes and the body on the horizontal work surface. In this “position that characterizes many modern professions, the head finds itself in front of the center of gravity” and the moment of the load applied to the segment located between the C7 cervical vertebra and the adjacent dorsal vertebra is 3.6 times. Larger than in neutral mode. “Sitting cross-legged in such a position for prolonged periods may have increased cervical spine degeneration in clerks,” the study authors explain.

See also  Haute-Garonne: barbecue, gardening, dealing with fireworks...beware the risk of injury

They also noted a very high prevalence of osteoarthritis in the temporomandibular joint, which connects the lower jaw to the skull. Osteoarthritis in this specific area is usually caused by dental disease, such as teeth grinding or certain eating habits. But its presence among scribes could have stemmed from their habit of chewing the end of the obliquely cut reed used as a pen in order to give it the shape of a paintbrush. Scribes often repeated this procedure, because “when the pen became worn out or clogged with ink, they cut off the end that had become unusable and applied the next part with paste.”

Shoulder, thumb, knee

We also noticed in the scribes group an increase in osteoporosis in the right shoulder, more precisely at the level of the head of the humerus (the bone between the shoulder and the elbow) and the clavicle. This may indicate that the shoulders must have been burdened when the scribes were in a fixed sitting position and had their arms raised without support, as when writing.

The first metacarpal of the right thumb was also significantly weakened due to osteoarthritis, presumably due to the pen grip and fine thumb movements, the high frequency and duration of which may have generated long-term mechanical stress.

The presence of arthritis in the lower end of the right femur, where the latter articulates with the patella – which may be caused by repeated deep knee bends – as well as at the level of the ankle neck of the right foot (tarsal bone that articulates with the tibia) and damage to the left ischial tuberosity. MI Havelkova and colleagues.

See also  Seasonal Allergies: The Most Effective Treatment

According to the latter, all areas that are severely affected among clerks likely represent risk factors linked to their professional activity. However, the fact that the damage in the lower extremity region (femur, ankle neck and pelvic bones) was not significantly different from that in the control group, indicates that the positions adopted by the scribes were common among the inhabitants of the ancient Egyptian Empire, as they identified.

The researchers also argue that “identifying the affected areas, and especially their cluster, could be useful in distinguishing individuals who practiced the profession of scribe among the skeletons found whose titles were not preserved.”

To watch on video

You May Also Like

About the Author: Irene Alves

"Bacon ninja. Guru do álcool. Explorador orgulhoso. Ávido entusiasta da cultura pop."

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *