The Cuneiform Stylus
Written by
Categories: Ancient

The Cuneiform Stylus

In an interview about her new book Weavers, Scribes, and Kings on the cuneiform world, Amanda Podany talks about how the ancient Near East is still not as widely known as the Greek world or the La Tène world.

I’ve been teaching this material for a very long time, and I see what my students find fascinating and what surprises them and what questions they have. And based on that, I had a sense of what I thought would be fascinating in the book. I think it’s not as hard as you would think to translate what scholars have written into language that is just more accessible, because they’ve done a wonderful job already. I mean, I’m not suggesting that I am somehow taking something that was very obscure and making it accessible. They’ve done that work. It’s just that it’s been published in academic journals that are hard to find if you’re a general reader. They’ve been published in books that may be very expensive, that are from academic publishers. It just felt as though this is a way of kind of opening the window to this field for people where they can then go and read the works if they’re interested by the scholars who have worked on it.

Interview, Amanda H. Podany

In honour of that, this week I will post about one of those articles which could get a wider readership if people knew about it: Michele Cammarosano’s “The Cuneiform Stylus” (academia dot edu).

Cammarosano asks just what type of stylus was used to make cuneiform signs, and how it was held. Today we often use chopsticks, but ancient styli were usually cut reeds or sometimes bone, copper, or silver. Cammarosano uses the marks on tablets and ancient sculptures of scribes at work to work out the most plausible methods and ask whether they varied from place to place or time to time. Whereas the classic articles before 1914 relied on examining the tablets by eye, Cammarosano also used 3d models of tablets in the Hilprecht-Sammlung in Jena. We can’t go to a tablet house and be showed how to select our clay, cut our reed, and make our signs, so articles like this are as close as we can get.

Edit: Here is an example of what Cammarosano learned:

as far as we know, “Hittite” wedges – that is to say, wedges on cuneiform tablets from Boghazköy and other Hittite sites – never display the “reed pattern” observed in various tablet corpora from mesopotamia. This fact suggests that the Hittite scribes did not use reed styli at all. In Hittite wedges, all faces are typically smooth and flat, without any curvature apart from those originating from movements of the stylus performed during the impression. Climatic conditions may have played a role in the choice of materials other than reed, since the appropriate species (Arundo donax, see §4.2) had to be much more scarce than in Mesopotamia.

Anyone with a free account can download his article in Mesopotamia, Vol. 49 (2014) pp. 53-90 from

Being a scribe does not pay much silver or barley these days, whether you write on clay with a stylus or in bits with a keyboard! Please support my work.

(scheduled 10 December 2022)

paypal logo
patreon logo

Write a comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.