Zenon’s Office Supplies


Photo: Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund
Egyptian. Scribe and Official, ca. 670-650 B.C.E. Limestone, pigment,
Creative Commons-BY

For as long as there have been large, centralized governments, there have also been faceless bureaucrats doing important, if unexciting, work behind the scenes to keep the society functioning. As Andrea M. Berlin recounts in her article, “Zenon’s Flour: Grains of Truth from Tel Kedesh (Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2019),” the bureaucrat named Zenon kept copious records on papyri that were preserved. This trove of firsthand records, discovered in 1914, has allowed researchers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to learn much about the Egyptian empire of twenty-three hundred years ago. This was only possible because of the recording technology available to Zenon at that time: what effectively were his office supplies.

Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1914
Scribe’s Palette and Brushes, 664–332 B.C.
Egyptian, Late Period
Wood, ink, reed;

The actual tools used by Zenon are almost definitely lost to time and decay. However, writing implements from the time period, or even earlier, have been recovered and preserved. Everyday writing in ancient Egypt and the Levant was done with a reed brush dipped in black ink. The wooden palette shown above, which still contains an unused cake of black ink and is accompanied by three reed brushes, dates broadly to the Late period (664–332 B.C.E.). It was excavated from a tomb at Sheikh ‘Abd el-Qurna in western Thebes, Egypt.

Photo: Brooklyn Museum
Graeco-Roman. Inkwell, 664–525 B.C.E. Faience, 13/16 x 1 1/2 x 2 7/8 in. (2.1 x 3.8 x 7.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Theodora Wilbour, 35.1316. Creative Commons-BY


A scribe would have an inkwell to hold his ink. The inkwell above dates to the Egyptian Dynasty 26 (664-525 B.C.E.). It is made of ancient faiance, a non-clay ceramic made mostly of crushed quartz or sand, fired into a glass-like solid . When new, copper pigments in the glaze would give it a bright blue-green look. The coloring is still apparent, though faded.

Ilustrated Papyrus

illustrated Papyrus, 4th-3rd century B.C.E. Papyrus, pigment, ink, 37.1647Ea1: 13 9/16 × 6 9/16 in. (34.5 × 16.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1647Ea-e (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 37.1647Ea-e_view1_cropped.jpg)

Starting with the papyrus plant, a reed that grows around the Nile river, the labor-intensive process of making papyrus involved peeling into long strips, laying out in a crosshatch pattern, pressing, and drying. Because it was an expensive material, it was mostly reserved for administrative records and funerary literature. This is an indication of how important the bureaucratic function was to the ancient Egyptians. It was fortunate for modern historians that Zenon was able to access sufficient papyrus to keep such extensive records, and provide us a glimpse into some non-exceptional aspects of ancient Egyptian life.

One such aspect relates to the flour that fed the ancient Egyptians. Read about what Zenon’s record-keeping revealed to modern researchers on the subject in Andrea M. Berlin’s article, “Zenon’s Flour: Grains of Truth from Tel Kedesh” published in the November/December 2019 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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