How to make a clay tablet, part 1

As part of my research into writing practices in the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, I’m looking at how the clay tablets on which administrative documents were written in the Linear B script were made in the first place: after all, creating the object you’re going to write on is as crucial a part of the whole package of writing practices as actually doing the writing, even if we don’t know whether this was usually done by the writers themselves or by other tablet-makers. Earlier on I did some preliminary work preparing and trying out different clays, and now that I’ve been able to start examining the actual tablets in the National Archaeological Museum here in Athens, I’ve also started some more systematic experiments trying out different methods of tablet-making. I’ve just presented this work-in-progress at the European Association of Archaeologists‘ annual conference, so it seemed a good time to share it here as well!

I’m focusing for the moment on the so-called ‘palm-leaf’ tablets: long, thin tablets usually used for recording single pieces of administrative information (think, ‘Anna at Pylos has 10 sheep’, or ‘5 litres of olive oil was given out to Anna’). In some cases, a group of these records would be filed together to form a related set; in other cases, their information would be compiled onto a larger ‘page-shaped’ tablet.

Long, thin clay tablet with large Linear B signs inscribed on its flat top surface
Example of a palm-leaf tablet, made by me. Text is a personnel record of a group of women, girls, and boys who work as ‘flour-grinders’.

These palm-leaf tablets could therefore have a range of functions and production circumstances: made in a storeroom to record that a quantity of olive oil was just given out, or made in or near the ‘Archives Complex’ where most tablets were ultimately filed and stored; made quickly to fill an immediate, on-the-spot need to make a record, or as part of a longer-term plan to create a set of related documents; made with the intention of filing and storing, or as preliminary records to be complied later. None of these, of course, necessarily map straightforwardly onto the amount of care/attention/time that might or might not be spent on making them. One thing that I’ve observed so far looking at real tablets in the museum is that, although the palm-leaf tablets do vary in how neatly they’re made, the amount of really scrappy-looking ones that seem to be the result of a fairly quick, careless shaping of a lump of clay is incredibly small – most are pretty neat, regardless of which situation they were made in.

Anyway, in terms of variation in how the basic shape of the tablet is actually produced, there are two main ways this can be done. You can simply take a lump of clay and roll it into a cylinder on a flat surface, as I’m doing in the picture above, before flattening it with your palms into a long, thin tablet: the side that’s underneath when you do this will then be nice and flat for writing on. Or you can choose a slightly more complicated method: rolling out a flat sheet of clay (I use a rolling pin; presumably the Mycenaean tablet-makers used something fairly similar!), then folding it over once or twice, again producing a long, thin tablet.

In principle, this produces very easy-to-spot traces: in the pictures below, you can see the folded layers on the end of the tablet (above left), and the seam running along the back (above centre, without any tidying; above right, partly smoothed-over). In practice, it’s not always (often) that easy, since the tablet-makers tend to smooth over the seam (almost) completely, even more than I have in the right-hand picture above, and often the ends as well: it’s entirely possible to make a folded tablet that’s basically indistinguishable from one made just by rolling and squashing the clay, if you smooth over the back and ends well enough, which complicates the task of working out which tablets were made in which way (a subject for another post…). Also, whether you’re rolling the clay or folding it, you can incorporate a straw through the middle: it’s easy to spot when this has been done because the straw leaves a hole behind in the ends of the tablet!

I’m interested in why the tablet-makers would choose one method over another: what are the benefits of the more complicated methods of rolling out and folding, and/or adding a straw, that make these worth doing? From my experiments so far, the folding method has no effect on how quickly the tablet dries, or how solid/stable it is once it does – what it does affect is the tablet’s initial stability while the clay is still fairly wet. A rolled clay palm-leaf tablet is pretty bendy when first made; adding folded layers signficantly reduces this, which would make the tablet a lot easier to write on and move around without it bending and potentially breaking. As the photo below shows, adding a straw also slightly improves things in both cases, but folding vs rolling makes a much bigger difference than straw vs. no straw.

Four long thin clay tablets positioned upright on their sides. top to bottom: caption "rolled around a straw", tablet slightly bent with straw sticking out both ends. caption "rolled with no straw", very bent tablet. "folded around a straw": almost completely straight tablet with seam visible along uppermost edge, and straw sticking out both ends. "folded with no straw": very slightly bent tablet with seam partly visible on edge

So, it seems that when choosing whether to roll and squash a tablet or to invest slightly more time and effort in rolling out a sheet of clay and folding it, the tablet-makers (whether they were the same person who would then write on the tablet, or someone else) may have been considering the writer’s subsequent experience and ease of handling and using the tablet as a writing surface, and prioritising this over ease and convenience in making the tablet. Adding the straw might be a further means of doing this, and/or might have another purpose – the other reason that’s been suggested for this is that the tablet could be moved around by the straw while wet, to save handling it and potentially distorting the clay or smudging the writing. This is something I’m going to look into more in future experiments – so far, the couple of times I’ve used a straw to move a wet tablet around, it’s tended to cause cracking or breakage when drying, so I’m aiming to see if a way can be found to avoid that, or if this implies that moving the tablet was actually not the purpose of the straws. I’ll also be looking more at the finishing of the tablets – smoothing the writing surface and neatening the edges – and once the museum autopsy is complete, I’ll be able to do more thinking about the relationship between the making and the writing of particular tablets/groups of tablets, and what priorities might be at stake in the different decisions made by makers and/or writers in different circumstances. So follow me here for more installments in the ‘how to make a clay tablet’ series in the future!

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

4 thoughts on “How to make a clay tablet, part 1”

  1. If the hole the straw left was bigger I might think it allowed air circulation during firing so the piece didn’t explode, but these items aren’t big enough to have that problem anyway most likely. As a clay artist it’s an intriguing question to me.

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    1. So, the tablets weren’t actually fired, just air-dried – they only got fired accidentally when buildings they were in burned down! Otherwise I would definitely be thinking about firing implications

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      1. I wondered about that ( firing seemed impractical for so many reasons but here they are , fired, so I wasn’t sure how that happened) so thanks for explaining. I find the question of the straw’s purpose interesting in being one of those things assumed to be such common knowledge it’s never thought worthy of recording (or else didn’t survive in references) and forgotten-for the future to puzzle over. I always think those from the past would say, in surprise at our incomprehension , Well, it’s obvious! I like your hands on approach to questions such as these tablets. I know nothing about the subject but you’ve made it intriguing. Thank you.

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