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Literacy remains an elusive subject for ancient Egypt (Baines 1983; Baines/Eyre 1983; Lesko 2001). Estimates of 1-5% of the population as literate are based on very limited available evidence. Generalisations covering the whole country, even within any one period, inevitably mask differences between regions, and, most importantly, between urban and rural populations. They may seriously underestimate the proportion of the population able to read and write in towns; low literacy estimates are a regular feature of 19th and 20th century attitudes to ancient and medieval (pre-Reformation) societies (as observed in the polemical work by Cerquiglini 1989: 35). From the late Middle Kingdom town-site at Lahun (about 1800 BC), Flinders Petrie acquired in 1889 around eighty separate groups of fragmentary papyri: these thousands of fragments represent a fraction of the written output of a town of perhaps 5,000 inhabitants across a period of perhaps five decades. Although few findspots were recorded, the papyri seem to reflect levels of literacy in both the palatial town houses of the elite, and the smaller houses covering most of the site (Gallorini 1998). The estimate of literacy for this urban population may need to be revised upwards to around 15%. The Letters to the Dead from Qau and Hu present the earliest evidence for daily writing in those provinces of Upper Egypt; without their chance survival, the archaeological record of literacy might begin there with substantially later and more formal writing (hieroglyphic inscription).

Literacy estimates raise evident dangers in simplifying social relations to two opposing blocks of 'literate' and 'non-literate': as observed by Cerquiglini 1989: 36-37, calculations of low literacy levels have been less distorting than the simplistic impression and manipulation of this oral-written opposition. Lesko 2001 notes the need for awareness of the grades of literacy. Problems with reductive approaches to literacy include the following:

  1. ancient Egypt always had at least two scripts in operation, one for securing eternity, deployed together with formal art (hieroglyphic script), one for more day-to-day purposes (cursive scripts, first hieratic, later demotic). Therefore there would have been at least three blocks: those trained in hieroglyphs, those trained in cursive writing, and those without training. This recalls the three groups into which ancient Egyptian writings often divide the population: Hnmmt - pat - rxyt. However the focus of that tripartite division, whatever its relation to writing in practice, seems rather to be the person of the divine king.
  2. literacy is not a one-dimensional single subject, but covers different grades (from illiterate to proficient) and practices (reading, writing, composing, copying). This fine typology needs to be considered in relation to another fundamental skill in literate societies - numeracy (for mathematics in ancient Egypt see the pages by Annette Imhausen and James Ritter on this website).
  3. The pursuit of literate versus illiterate percentages of the population may distract researchers from study of the impact of writing on society.

Computer literacy in contemporary society offers a convenient model to replace the simple opposition 'literate versus illiterate': a refined typology of literacy might range from full literacy in sacred script, through literacy in writing cursive, to reading and recognising particular ranges of cursive writing, to mark-making/-reading to non-literate persons. The question to be researched remains, for the bulk of the urban and the rural population, whether reading and writing formed, even indirectly, part of life .



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