Wax tablet

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Wax tablet and a Roman stylus Table with was and stylus Roman times.jpg
Wax tablet and a Roman stylus

A wax tablet is a tablet made of wood and covered with a layer of wax, often linked loosely to a cover tablet, as a "double-leaved" diptych. It was used as a reusable and portable writing surface in Antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages. Cicero's letters make passing reference to the use of cerae, and some examples of wax-tablets have been preserved in waterlogged deposits in the Roman fort at Vindolanda on Hadrian's Wall. Medieval wax tablet books are on display in several European museums.

Wax class of chemical compounds that are plastic (malleable) near ambient temperatures.

Waxes are a diverse class of organic compounds that are lipophilic, malleable solids near ambient temperatures. They include higher alkanes and lipids, typically with melting points above about 40 °C (104 °F), melting to give low viscosity liquids. Waxes are insoluble in water but soluble in organic, nonpolar solvents. Natural waxes of different types are produced by plants and animals and occur in petroleum.

Diptych two-part polyptych

A diptych is any object with two flat plates attached at a hinge. For example, the standard notebook and school exercise book of the ancient world was a diptych consisting of a pair of such plates that contained a recessed space filled with wax. Writing was accomplished by scratching the wax surface with a stylus. When the notes were no longer needed, the wax could be slightly heated and then smoothed to allow reuse. Ordinary versions had wooden frames, but more luxurious diptychs were crafted with more expensive materials.

Writing Representation of language in a textual medium

Writing is a medium of human communication that represents language and emotion with signs and symbols. In most languages, writing is a complement to speech or spoken language. Writing is not a language, but a tool used to make languages be read. Within a language system, writing relies on many of the same structures as speech, such as vocabulary, grammar, and semantics, with the added dependency of a system of signs or symbols. The result of writing is called text, and the recipient of text is called a reader. Motivations for writing include publication, storytelling, correspondence, record keeping and diary. Writing has been instrumental in keeping history, maintaining culture, dissemination of knowledge through the media and the formation of legal systems.


Writing on the wax surface was performed with a pointed instrument, a stylus. A straight-edged spatula-like implement (often placed on the opposite end of the stylus tip) would be used as an eraser. The modern expression of "a clean slate" equates to the Latin expression "tabula rasa".

Stylus a writing utensil

A stylus, plural styli or styluses, is a writing utensil or a small tool for some other form of marking or shaping, for example, in pottery. It can also be a computer accessory that is used to assist in navigating or providing more precision when using touchscreens. It usually refers to a narrow elongated staff, similar to a modern ballpoint pen. Many styluses are heavily curved to be held more easily. Another widely used writing tool is the stylus used by blind users in conjunction with the slate for punching out the dots in Braille.

A spatula is a broad, flat, flexible blade used to mix, spread and lift material including foods, drugs, plaster and paints.

Slate (writing) thin piece of flat material used as a medium for writing

A slate is a thin piece of hard flat material, such as the rock also called slate, that is used as a medium for writing. The rock is "a metamorphic rock created by the recrystallization of the minerals in shale from clay to parallel-aligned, flat, flake-like minerals such as mica".

Writing with stylus and folding wax tablet. painter, Douris, ca 500 BC (Berlin). Douris Man with wax tablet.jpg
Writing with stylus and folding wax tablet. painter, Douris, ca 500 BC (Berlin).

Wax tablets were used for a variety of purposes, from taking down students' or secretaries' notes to recording business accounts. Early forms of shorthand were used too.

Use in antiquity

The earliest surviving exemplar of a boxwood writing tablet with an ivory hinge was among the finds recovered from the 14th-century BCE Uluburun Shipwreck near Kaş in modern Turkey in 1986. [1] This find further confirmed that the reference to writing tablets in Homer was far from anachronistic. An archaeological discovery in 1979 in Durrës, Albania found two wax tablets made of ivory in a grave believed to belong to a money lender from the 2nd century CE. [2]

Kaş Town in Mediterranean, Turkey

Kaş is a small fishing, diving, yachting and tourist town, and a district of Antalya Province of Turkey, 168 km west of the city of Antalya. As a tourist resort, it is relatively unspoiled.

Turkey Republic in Western Asia

Turkey, officially the Republic of Turkey, is a transcontinental country located mainly in Western Asia, with a smaller portion on the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe. East Thrace, located in Europe, is separated from Anatolia by the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorous strait and the Dardanelles. Turkey is bordered by Greece and Bulgaria to its northwest; Georgia to its northeast; Armenia, the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan and Iran to the east; and Iraq and Syria to the south. Istanbul is the largest city, but more central Ankara is the capital. Approximately 70 to 80 per cent of the country's citizens identify as Turkish. Kurds are the largest minority; the size of the Kurdish population is a subject of dispute with estimates placing the figure at anywhere from 12 to 25 per cent of the population.

The Greeks probably started using the folding pair of wax tablets, along with the leather scroll in the mid-8th century BCE. Liddell & Scott, 1925 edition gives the etymology of the word for the writing-tablet, deltos (δέλτος), from the letter delta (Δ) based on ancient Greek and Roman authors and scripts, due to the shape of tablets to account for it. [3] An alternative theory holds that it has retained its Semitic designation, daltu, which originally signified "door" but was being used for writing tablets in Ugarit in the 13th century BCE. In Hebrew the term evolved into daleth. [4]

Etymology Study of the history of words, their origins, and how their form and meaning have changed over time

Etymology is the study of the history of words. By extension, the term "the etymology " means the origin of the particular word and for place names, there is a specific term, toponymy.

Delta is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. In the system of Greek numerals it has a value of 4. It was derived from the Phoenician letter dalet 𐤃, Letters that come from delta include Latin D and Cyrillic Д.

Semitic languages Language group containing Arabic and Hebrew

The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family originating in the Middle East that are spoken by more than 330 million people across much of Western Asia, North Africa and the Horn of Africa, as well as in often large immigrant and expatriate communities in North America, Europe and Australia. The terminology was first used in the 1780s by members of the Göttingen School of History, who derived the name from Shem, one of the three sons of Noah in the Book of Genesis.

In the first millennium BCE writing tablets were in use in Mesopotamia as well as Syria and Palestine. A carved stone panel dating to between 640-615 BCE that was excavated from the South-West Palace of the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib, at Nineveh in Iraq (British Museum, ME 124955) depicts two figures, one clearly clasping a scroll and the other bearing what is thought to be an open diptych. [5] Berthe van Regemorter identified a similar figure in the Neo-Hittite Stela of Tarhunpiyas (Musée du Louvre, AO 1922.), dating to the late 8th century BCE, who is seen holding what may be a form of tablature with a unique button closure. [6] [7] Writing tablets of ivory were found in the ruins of Sargon's palace in Nimrud. [8] Margaret Howard surmised that these tablets might have once been connected together using an ingenious hinging system with cut pieces of leather resembling the letter “H” inserted into slots along the edges to form a concertina structure. [9]

Assyria Major Mesopotamian East Semitic kingdom

Assyria, also called the Assyrian Empire, was a Mesopotamian kingdom and empire of the ancient Near East and the Levant. It existed as a state from perhaps as early as the 25th century BC until its collapse between 612 BC and 609 BC - spanning the periods of the Early to Middle Bronze Age through to the late Iron Age. From the end of the seventh century BC to the mid-seventh century AD, it survived as a geopolitical entity, for the most part ruled by foreign powers such as the Parthian and early Sasanian Empires between the mid-second century BC and late third century AD, the final part of which period saw Mesopotamia become a major centre of Syriac Christianity and the birthplace of the Church of the East.

Sennacherib King of Assyria

Sennacherib was the king of Assyria from 705 BCE to 681 BCE. He is principally remembered for his military campaigns against Babylon and Judah, and for his building programs – most notably at the Akkadian capital of Nineveh. He was assassinated in obscure circumstances in 681 BCE, apparently by his eldest son.

Nineveh ancient Assyrian city, capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire

Nineveh was an ancient Assyrian city of Upper Mesopotamia, located on the outskirts of Mosul in modern-day northern Iraq. It is located on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, and was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Today it is a common name for the half of Mosul which lies on the eastern bank of the Tigris.

Use in medieval to modern times

Roman scribe with his stylus and tablets on his tomb stele at Flavia Solva in Noricum. Scribe tomb relief Flavia Solva.jpg
Roman scribe with his stylus and tablets on his tomb stele at Flavia Solva in Noricum.

Hériman of Tournai (1095—1147), a monk at the abbey of St Martin of Tournai, wrote "I even wrote down a certain amount on tablets". [10]

A remarkable example of a wax tablet book are the servitude records which the hospital of Austria's oldest city, Enns, established in 1500. Ten wooden plates, sized 375 x 207 mm and arranged in a 90 mm stack, are each divided into two halves along their long axis. The annual payables due are written on parchment or paper glued to the left sides. Payables received were recorded for deduction (and subsequently erased) on the respective right sides, which are covered with brownish-black writing wax. The material is based on beeswax, and contains 5-10% plant oils and carbon pigments; its melting point is about 65 °C. [11] This volume is the continuation of an earlier one, which was begun in 1447.

Wax tablets were used for high-volume business records of transient importance until the 19th century. For instance, the salt mining authority at Schwäbisch Hall employed wax records until 1812. [12] The fish market in Rouen used them even until the 1860s, where their construction and use had been well documented in 1849. [13]

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Hanging Gardens of Babylon One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as listed by Hellenic culture, described as a remarkable feat of engineering with an ascending series of tiered gardens containing a wide variety of trees, shrubs, and vines, resembling a large green mountain constructed of mud bricks, and said to have been built in the ancient city of Babylon, near present-day Hillah, Babil province, in Iraq. Its name is derived from the Greek word kremastós, which has a broader meaning than the modern English word "hanging" and refers to trees being planted on a raised structure such as a terrace.

Hieratic cursive writing system used in the provenance of the pharaohs in Egypt and Nubia

Hieratic is a cursive writing system used for Ancient Egyptian, and the principal script used to write that language from its development in the 3rd millennium BCE until the rise of Demotic in the mid 1st millennium BCE. It was primarily written in ink with a reed pen on papyrus.

Cuneiform Old writing system used for many languages, including Akkadian and Hittite

Cuneiform or Sumerian cuneiform, one of the earliest systems of writing, was invented by the Sumerians. It is distinguished by its wedge-shaped marks on clay tablets, made by means of a blunt reed for a stylus. The name cuneiform itself simply means "wedge shaped".

Nimrud Assyrian city

Nimrud is an ancient Assyrian city located 30 kilometres (20 mi) south of the city of Mosul, and 5 kilometres (3 mi) south of the village of Selamiyah, in the Nineveh plains in Upper Mesopotamia. It was a major Assyrian city between approximately 1350 BC and 610 BC. The city is located in a strategic position 10 kilometres (6 mi) north of the point that the river Tigris meets its tributary the Great Zab. The city covered an area of 360 hectares. The ruins of the city were found within one kilometre (1,100 yd) of the modern-day Assyrian village of Noomanea in Nineveh Province, Iraq.

<i>Lamassu</i> tutelary spirit in Mesopotamian mythology

A lamassu is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted as having a human head, the body of a bull or a lion, and bird wings. In some writings, it is portrayed to represent a female deity. A less frequently used name is shedu, which refers to the male counterpart of a lamassu. Lammasu represent the zodiacs, parent-stars or constellations.

Assur archaeological site in Iraq

Aššur, also known as Ashur and Qal'at Sherqat, was the capital of the Old Assyrian Empire, the Middle Assyrian Empire, and for a time, of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The remains of the city lie on the western bank of the Tigris River, north of the confluence with its tributary, the Little Zab, in what is now Iraq, more precisely in the al-Shirqat District of the Saladin Governorate.

Ashurnasirpal II Assyrian king

Ashur-nasir-pal II was king of Assyria from 883 to 859 BC.

The Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, named after Ashurbanipal, the last great king of the Assyrian Empire, is a collection of thousands of clay tablets and fragments containing texts of all kinds from the 7th century BC. Among its holdings was the famous Epic of Gilgamesh.

Kikkuli was the Hurrian "master horse trainer" of the land Mitanni" and author of a chariot horse training text written in the Hittite language, dating to the Hittite New Kingdom. The text is notable both for the information it provides about the development of Indo-European languages and for its content.

In epigraphy, a bilingual is an inscription that includes the same text in two languages. Bilinguals are important for the decipherment of ancient writing systems, and for the study of ancient languages with small or repetitive corpora.

Consular diptych

In Late Antiquity, a consular diptych was a type of diptych intended as a de-luxe commemorative object. The diptychs were generally in ivory, wood or metal and decorated with rich relief sculpture. A consular diptych was commissioned by a consul ordinarius to mark his entry to that post, and was distributed as a commemorative reward to those who had supported his candidature or might support him in future.

Poet and Muse diptych Ancient Roman artwork

The Poet and Muse diptych is a Late Antique ivory diptych that appears to commemorate, and to flatter, the literary pursuits of the aristocrat who commissioned it, so that it stands somewhat apart from the consular diptychs that were carved for distribution to friends and patrons when a man assumed the consular dignity during the later Roman Empire. The original inscription in this example, unusually, will have been carried out on the borders of the reverse side, which was infilled with a layer of wax for writing on, the ivory diptych being a very grand example of a wax tablet; the inscription has not survived, so there can be no way to identify the writer for whom it was made. In the literature that has accumulated about this diptych, various prominent figures have been offered as candidates: Ausonius, Boethius, and Claudian, and even earlier figures, like Ennius and Seneca, with whom the donor wished to be associated

Assyrian lion weights

The Assyrian lion weights are a group of sixteen bronze Mesopotamian weights from the 8th century BCE, with bilingual inscriptions in both cuneiform and Phoenician characters. The lion weights were discovered at Nimrud in the late 1840s and are now in the British Museum.

Stephanie Mary Dalley FSA is a British scholar of the Ancient Near East. She has retired as a teaching Fellow from the Oriental Institute, Oxford. She is known for her publications of cuneiform texts and her investigation into the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and her proposal that it was situated in Nineveh, and constructed during Sennacherib's rule.

Bloomberg tablets

The Bloomberg tablets are a collection of 405 preserved wooden tablets that were found at the site of the Bloomberg building in the financial district of London. Excavations of the site took place between 2010 and 2013, after which the current Bloomberg building was constructed on the site of the archaeological dig.

Assyrian sculpture

Assyrian sculpture is the sculpture of the ancient Assyrian states, especially the Neo-Assyrian Empire of 911 to 612 BC, which ruled modern Iraq, Syria, and much of Iran. It forms a phase of the art of Mesopotamia, differing in particular because of its much greater use of stone and gypsum alabaster for large sculpture.

Hittite art

Hittite art was produced by the Hittite civilization in ancient Anatolia, in modern-day Turkey, and also stretching into Syria during the second millennium BCE from the nineteenth century up until the twelfth century BCE. This period falls under the Anatolian Bronze Age. It is characterized by a long tradition of canonized images and motifs rearranged, while still being recognizable, by artists to convey meaning to a largely illiterate population.

“Owing to the limited vocabulary of figural types [and motifs], invention for the Hittite artist usually was a matter of combining and manipulating the units to form more complex compositions"


  1. Payton, Robert (1991). "The Ulu Burun Writing-Board Set". Anatolian Studies. 41: 99–106. doi:10.2307/3642932.
  2. http://albanianeconomy.com/2014/10/27/wax-tablets-reveal-secrets-ancient-illyria/
  3. Εntry δέλτος (deltos) at Liddell & Scott
  4. Walter, Burkert (1995). The orientalizing revolution: Near Eastern influence on Greek culture in the early archaic age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. p. 30.
  5. "Stone Panel from the South-West Palace of Sennacherib (Room 28, Panel 9)". British Museum. Retrieved 8 January 2011.
  6. Van Regemorter, Berthe (1958). "Le Codex Relié À L'époque Néo-Hittite". Scriptorium. 12: 177–81.
  7. Szirmai, J.A. (1990). "Wooden Writing Tablets and the Birth of the Codex". Gazette du Livre Médèvale. 17: 31–32.
  8. Wiseman, D.J. (1955). "Assyrian Writing Boards". Iraq. 17 (1): Plate III. doi:10.2307/4241713.
  9. Howard, Margaret (1955). "Technical Description of the Ivory Writing-Boards from Nimrud". Iraq. 17 (1): 14–20, Fig. 7–11. doi:10.2307/4241714.
  10. Herman of Tournai, Lynn Harry Nelson, ed. and tr. The Restoration of the Monastery of Saint Martin of Tournai "Prologue" p. 11.
  11. Wilflingseder, F., 1964. "Die Urbare des Ennser Bürgerspitals aus den Jahren 1447 und 1500". Biblos 13, 134-45
  12. Büll, R., 1977. Wachs als Beschreib- und Siegelstoff. Wachstafeln und ihre Verwendung. In: Das große Buch vom Wachs. Vol. 2, 785-894
  13. Lalou E., 1992. "Inventaire des tablettes médiévales et présentation genérale". In: Les Tablettes à écrire de l'Antiquité à l'Epoque Moderne, pp. 233-288; esp. p. 280 and Fig. 13

Further reading