Wax tablets in the ancient world

This post was written jointly with Cassie Donnelly, who is a PhD student in the Program for Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas at Austin, and who contributed the ancient Near Eastern sections.

Normally this blog is all about writing on clay tablets, but just for a change, today we’re going to look at ancient writing on a different kind of tablet. Tablets made of wood (or sometimes ivory) with a recess filled with wax were a common writing support in the ancient Mediterranean world – a sharp stylus made of wood, metal, or bone would be used to write in the wax, while if a mistake was made or the text was no longer needed, it could be erased using the other, flattened, end of the stylus. Tablets could be joined together in pairs (as in this picture) or larger sets in a kind of ‘book’.

Two-leafed wax tablet with stylus. Photo: Peter van der Sluijs, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Since wood, ivory, and wax are all perishable materials, they don’t survive in anywhere near the kinds of numbers that we see for clay tablets in the ancient Near East and Bronze Age Aegean, or stone inscriptions in the Greek and Roman periods. Much of our evidence for their use therefore comes from textual references to them or iconographic depictions of them, or iconographic depictions like this relief from the palace of Nineveh showing scribes at work recording captives after a battle, this Greek vase showing a man writing on a tablet, or this painting from Pompeii of a woman holding a set of tablets and a stylus.

Actual wax tablets do survive, however, in some exceptional circumstances, and we’re going to look at some examples from various different times and places in this post, as well as evidence for how they were made and used, starting in the ancient Near East.

The evidence for the use of wood and ivory writing tablets in the ancient Near East spans from Mesopotamia to Anatolia, from the time of the Ur III tablets (2100 BCE) into the classical Greek and Roman world, and beyond. In fact, the use of writing boards ended only two centuries ago – they were still used to keep records in the fish market in Rouen until the 1860s. Writing boards were very durable as an everyday writing material, and their durability made them incredibly useful for conducting business outside the home or documenting potentially messy industrial activities. They were also used, perhaps less often, for long-term information storage. Writing boards in the Bronze Age (ca. 2100-1000) got their durability from their wax writing surfaces. The writing boards (of ivory, wood, or even perhaps lapis lazuli) were recessed, and the surface was coated with wax. The boards were recessed in such a way that when the board-leaves were closed, or folded into a “book”, the wax-coated surfaces did not touch each other. Experiments conducted by the WoW! (Writing on Wax) project shows that beeswax, when mixed with ochre, orpiment (an arsenic-sulfide mineral that gives wax a golden appearance) or charcoal pigments—all pigments attested in ancient wax-writing board recipes—retains a pliable surface suitable for writing. The beeswax mixtures do not melt, even at high Mediterranean-summer temperatures. Researchers at the WoW! project experimented with writing on the wax surfaces with different styluses and found the wax surfaces suitable for writing both cuneiform (impressed) and linear (drawn) scripts. 

Plexiglas reconstruction of a pair of tablets, with cuneiform written in wax on the left-hand tablet. Photo: Cammarosano et al. 2019, plate 1, CC BY SA 4.0

The first textual references to wax tablets in the Bronze Age come from Mesopotamia in the Ur III period. The references are few, probably on account of the fact that beeswax was not abundantly available in Mesopotamia due to the type of bees indigenous to the region. An explosion of references to wax tablets comes from New Kingdom Hittite Anatolia (modern Turkey; ca. 1400- 1190 BCE), a region where beeswax was an easily obtainable commodity. References to wax tablets also increase in Mesopotamia during this time, though are not as numerous as they are in Hittite Anatolia. The only surviving Bronze Age wax tablet comes from the Uluburun shipwreck off the coast of Anatolia, where leaves from two two-page writing boards were discovered in a pithos (a large jar). Unfortunately, neither the wax nor the writing on the board survives, though three shapes carved into the edge of one board may be signs in Luwian Hieroglyphs.

Pair of wooden writing boards joined by ivory hinges, with possible written signs in the lower inner corner of the right-hand board. Photo from J. Aruz, K. Benzel, & J.M. Evans, Beyond Babylon: Art, Trade, and Diplomacy in the Second Millennium B.C. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008), p.368

Outside of Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the use of wax tablets in the Bronze Age can only be inferred from the presence of a specific type of ivory hinge similar to the ones from the Uluburun tablets. These hinges are found at Megiddo, in modern day Israel, Ugarit, on the northwest shore of Syria, and in one example at the site of Hala Sultan Tekke in Cyprus. Much later on, from the 8th century BCE, we have a set of ivory tablets from the Neo-Assyrian palace at Nimrud, one of which even has a small amount of wax surviving with the cuneiform writing still visible. An inscription carved into the wooden cover tells us that this was a copy of the Enuma Anu Enlil, an astrological text with lists of omens and their meanings.

In the classical Greek and Roman world, we have more surviving tablets whose texts can actually be read than we do from the ancient Near East, showing that the tablets were used for all sorts of texts, from school exercises to legal documents. Within Italy, we have a collection of about 150 tablets from a house in Pompeii belonging to a banker called Lucius Caecilius Iucundus (yes, that’s Caecilius from the Cambridge Latin Course!) – although they were carbonised by the heat of the eruption of Vesuvius, they are still readable, and record the details of Caecilius’ business dealings such as issuing loans. In addition to showing us how an ancient Roman banker operated his business, the practice of having multiple witnesses sign these documents provides an insight into the social and commercial connections amongst the residents of Pompeii.

In Egypt, the dry desert climate preserves perishable materials very well (compare the vast numbers of ancient texts written on papryi which survive there): here’s a remarkably well-preserved school exercise ‘book’, in which the teacher has written two lines for the student to copy twice below: Σοφοῦ παρ’ ἀνδρὸς προσδέχου συμβουλίαν | Μὴ πᾶσιν εἰκῇ τοῖς φίλοις πιστεύεται “Take advice from a wise man | You should not trust all your friends”. You can see that the pupil’s handwriting is less neat, and they omit the first letter of the first line both times.

Wax tablet with teacher’s text above, copied twice by a pupil below. Photo: British Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Britain, on the other hand, extremely waterlogged sites have a similar preservation effect. There are small numbers of wax tablets from sites in the north of England (e.g. Vindolanda, where a much larger number of ink-written wooden tablets has also been found), but the largest collection comes from the excavations at the ‘Bloomberg’ site in the City of London in 2010-14: about 400 tablets were found in the waterlogged soil on this site by the former Walbrook stream. In this case, the wax doesn’t survive, but on about a quarter of them the text can be read (by experts and under particular lighting conditions!) from the scratches left by the stylus on the wood beneath the wax. The earliest of these tablets dates from only shortly after the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 CE, and again most of them are business documents: we see contracts for the transportation of goods, payments of rents, records of debts, and so on. (The publication of these documents is available as a free ebook).

Upper part of a wooden tablet, with scratches from writing on the now-lost wax faintly visible on the recessed surface, and stylus below. Photo: Mx. Granger, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The tablet in the picture, which has been called ‘the oldest business record in the City of London’, records two formerly enslaved people now acting as business agents:

“In the consulship of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus for the second time and of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, on the 6th day before the Ides of January [8th January 57 CE]. I, Tibullus the freedman of Venustus, have written and say that I owe Gratus the freedman of Spurius 105 denarii from the price of the merchandise which has been sold and delivered. This money I am due to repay him or the person whom the matter will concern…”

Tablets could also be used to send letters, in which the address of the recipient could be scratched into the wood of the outside, as in this tablet which famously includes the first instance of the name ‘Londinium’.

Wooden tablet inscribed LONDINIO MOGONTIO ‘To Mogontius in London’. Photo: Anna P. Judson.

These wax tablets, and the others which survive today, are just a tiny fracton of the number that must have existed across the whole ancient Mediterranean world, from Bronze Age Mesopotamia to Roman Britain – but they provide a small glimpse into the lives of the people who used them to write letters or business records, to practice learning to write, and even (as hinted at by the Nimrud tablet) for writing and keeping copies of religious (and perhaps also literary?) texts.

If anyone feels inspired by this to try making and writing their own wax tablet, here is a kid-friendly version using plasticine, or this video shows how to make one using wax – and you could use these worksheets by my colleagues in the CREWS Project to write on them a variety of ancient writing systems!

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.

Author: Anna P. Judson

Researcher of Linear B, currently in Athens

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