Written by


People in the long sixth century wrote on a variety of surfaces: clay tablets, waxed wooden or ivory tablets (“writing boards”), papyrus, skins, and scraps of limestone or pottery (ostraka). In Italy we hear about writing on long pieces of linen cloth. The tradition of laying out the writing surface with leadpoint is attested from the 2nd century BCE onwards:

  • Romano, F.P., Puglia, E., Caliri, C. et al. (2023) “Layout of ancient Greek papyri through lead-drawn ruling lines revealed by Macro X-Ray Fluorescence Imaging.” Sci Rep 13, 6582 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-33242-8

Letters and documents on papyrus were often written on offcuts: no need to use a whole roll to write a short note! These could be folded or rolled, tied with string, and sealed with clay or wax. Papyrus can crack if its folded, but writings like this did not have to last for hundreds of years like a copy of the Iliad. Statues of orators sometimes show them with a large case like a bucket with a lid to hold their writings, like the statue of Demosthenes in the Vatican, but someone carrying a letter, contract, or proclamation would not need something so big. David Harthen points to Plutarch’s story of a messenger in Sicily carrying a letters in his wallet (Plutarch, Dion, 26.3-5). The Arshama documents from Achaemenid Egypt which ended up in the Bodleian were said to be found with two leather bags (THE ARSHAMA LETTERS FROM THE BODLEIAN LIBRARY vol. 1 p. 17). Papyrologists will gladly show you photos of documents from Egypt which had not yet been unsealed, unrolled, or unfolded.

While the city of Pergamon became famous for parchment after Alexander, in earlier times rawhide was already used as a writing surface, for example for the Aramaic documents from Achaemenid Bactria . Reed’s Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leather is a good introduction.

A scribe’s palette labeled in Aramaic was found at Elephantine and probably dates to the time from Cambyses to Alexander: Brooklyn Museum, accession number 16.99a-d https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/9356 They also have a double inkwell in faience for the traditional Egyptian red and black ink, accession number 16.139 https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/opencollection/objects/9416

On writing boards or waxed tablets (different scholars prefer different names) see:

I have not seen (or proofread the citations to):

  • Elisabeth Lalou, “Les tablettes de cire medievales,” Bibliotheque de l’école des Chartes, cxlvii (1989), pp. 123-140 https://www.persee.fr/doc/bec_0373-6237_1989_num_147_1_450532
  • Elisabeth Lalou (ed.), Les tablettes à écrire, de l’antiquité à l’époque moderne: Actes du colloque international du Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, Institut de France, 10-11 octobre 1990 {Turnhout, 1992);
  • Ernst Moser, Hermann Kühn, “Wachs als Beschreib- und Siegelstoff. Wachsschreibtafeln und ihre Verwendung,” in Reinhard Büll (ed.), Vom Wachs: Hoechster Beiträge zur Kenntnis der Wachse (Frankfurt, 1968), pp. 785-894. Reprinted as Das große Buch vom Wachs (Munich, 1977)

← Back to table of contents

paypal logo
patreon logo