Two scribal palettes with ink wells and brushes

From Egypt
18th Dynasty, 1550-1450 BC

Written in black and red

The hieroglyphic sign for 'write' was formed from an image of the scribal palette and brush case. Statues of scribes are sometimes shown with a papyrus across their knees and a palette, the scribe's trademark, over one shoulder.

From the late Old Kingdom on, the basic palette was made of a rectangular piece of wood, with two cavities at one end to hold cakes of black and red ink. Carbon was used to make the black ink and iron-rich red ochre to make the red. Both pigments were mixed with gum so that they congealed rather than turned to dust when they dried. The cakes of ink were moistened with a wet brush, rather like modern watercolours or Chinese ink. Brush-pens were made of rushes, the tip cut at an angle and chewed to separate the fibres. These were kept in a slot in the middle of the palette.

Black was the normal colour for writing. Red was used to mark the start of a text, or to highlight key words and phrases, like quantities in medicines, or for the names of demons in religious papyri. More colours were needed for illustrations, such as those in the Book of the Dead.

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More information


E. Brovarski and others (eds), Egypts golden age: the art of (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1982)

E.R. Russmann, Eternal Egypt: masterworks of (University of California Press, 2001)

R. Parkinson, Cracking codes: the Rosetta St (London, The British Museum Press, 1999)

S. Quirke and A.J. Spencer, The British Museum book of anc (London, The British Museum Press, 1992)


Length: 28.500 cm (palette)
Width: 3.500 cm (palette)

Museum number

EA 12784;EA 5512



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