wax tablets were popular in ancient greece and rome -- 6/28/17

Today's selection -- from Paper by Mark Kurlansky. The materials used for writing before modern paper:

"Clay tablets were the world's primary writing material for three thousand years -- a considerably longer period than the reign of paper up until now.

"The banks of the Nile River are softened by thick growths of tall papyrus reeds with feathery tops that bow and sway in the breezes. According to legend, an infant who would be called Moses was found abandoned in a patch of these reeds in about 1500 BCE. At the time, the reeds themselves were already an important Egyptian product, and they would remain valuable for the next fifteen hundred years. ...

"But the plants were most valued as writing material. The papyrus reed peels like an onion, and once the green outer layer is removed, there are about twenty inner layers. These would be unrolled and laid out on a hard and smooth table, with each layer slightly overlapping the next...."

"Other civilizations in different climates found other plants to flatten into writing surfaces. ... What was unique about Egyptian papyrus, however, was that it became a valuable commercial product that was exported throughout the known world. ..."

Writing with stylus and folding wax tablet.
painter, Douris, ca 500 BC

"Papyrus was mostly used by scribes, who wrote with reed styluses, the ends chewed off into stiff brushes. Students studying to become scribes would begin with writing boards that were covered with a soft plaster that was erasable, just like Sumerian clay. You could simply pat the plaster down and start again. But an even more common implement that endured for centuries was the wax tablet, a board with a hollowed­ out center that was filled with wax -- most likely beeswax. In Assyria, such tablets have been found dating back as far as 80 BCE. They were extremely popular in ancient Greece and Rome, where the wax was black and the writing done with a metal stylus that was pointed on one end for writing and blunt on the other for erasing.

"The wax tablet was an important contribution to the written culture of ancient civilizations because it was the first widely used device for casual writing, intended for individuals other than scribes. Before wax tablets, anything that was written down had to be considered of great and enduring importance. But once there is writing, there arises a need for temporary writing -- a quick note to jot down and throw away the next day, an aid in calculating a math problem, a rough draft of a docu­ment that would later become permanent. All the other previous writing surfaces had been, for all intents and purposes, permanent. You could not bake a clay tablet to throw away the next day, or jot down something on an expensive scroll of papyrus and throw it away. And once something is literally carved in stone, it is figuratively 'carved in stone.' It can't be unwritten. The wax tablet, therefore, was the original Etch A Sketch for the ancient world. ...

"Sometimes several [wax] tablets would be bound together; in Latin this was known as a codex. The codex was the forerunner of the book, and while originally it referred to wax tablets, the word was later also applied to codices made of bound papyrus sheets, parchment, and eventually paper. But the codex was of limited use as long as papyrus, far better suited for scrolls, dominated. ...

"Eumenes, the ruler of the Greek city of Pergamum, also wanted to build a great library, but Ptolemy, not wanting a competitor, refused to export papyrus to him. According to Pliny, Eumenes, unwilling to aban­don his grand plan, began searching for an alternative writing material, and in the next hundred years, the people of Pergamum learned how to soak animal hide in lime for ten days, scrape it, and dry it. The hides of young animals -- kid, lamb, and young gazelle -- were used, though the best material was that made from the skin of feral animals. The flesh side of the hide was smoother than the fur side, and white animals produced the best quality skins. The skins were hung on a stretcher and scraped with a knife until they became smooth and hairless. After drying, they were further smoothed by rubbing with a stone.

"The new product was often called pergamum, after the city in which it was invented, and is still so named in some Latin languages, but is known in English as parchment. A particularly fine parchment made from calfskin is called vellum."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Mark Kurlansky


Paper: Paging Through History


W. W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 by Mark Kurlansky


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