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.
Technology and applications
Writing on the wax surface was performed with a pointed instrument, a stylus. Writing by engraving in wax required the application of much more pressure and traction than would be necessary with ink on parchment or papyrus, and the scribe had to lift the stylus in order to change the direction of the stroke. Therefore the stylus could not be applied with the same degree of dexterity as a pen. A straight-edged, spatula-like implement (often placed on the opposite end of the stylus tip) would be used in a razor-like fashion to serve as an eraser. The entire tablet could be erased for reuse by warming it to about 50 °C and smoothing the softened wax surface. The modern expression of "a clean slate" equates to the Latin expression "tabula rasa".
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 first appearance of writing tablets in written Greek appears in Homer— an Homeric example in which writing is referred to — in the narrated tale of Bellerophon (Iliad vi.155–203) which introduces the trope of the "fatal" or "Bellerophontic" letter, with its message sealed within the folded tablets: "Kill the bearer of this". Other examples of early writing survived through Parallel Lives of Plutarch and Hyginus (Fabulae):
Diodorus Siculus recounts the trip of Orpheus, the legendary poet to Nysa, where he composed the "Phrygian poem" making use of both speech and of writting (letters). In Plutarch's "Theseus", the women of Cyprus tried to comfort Ariadne; they brought her a forged "love letter" purporting written by Theseus. Plutarch goes on to describe how Theseus erected a pillar on the Isthmus of Corinth, which bears an inscription of two lines. One towards the East, i.e. towards Attica reading:
- τάδ᾽ οὐχὶ Πελοπόννησος, ἀλλ᾽ Ἰωνία "Here is not Peloponnesus, but Ionia"
and the one towards the West, i.e. towards the Peloponnese:
- τάδ᾽ ἐστὶ Πελοπόννησος, οὐκ Ἰωνία "Here is Peloponnesus, not Ionia".
Hyginus recounts of a letter presumably sent to Palamedes from Priam but in fact written by Odysseus. In Iphigenia in Tauris, the playwright by Euripides, Iphigenia, the daughter of Agamemnon enters from the temple carrying a letter saying: "Here are the many folds of the tablet, strangers" and then adds "I am afraid that when the one who is going to take this tablet to Argos leaves this land, he will put aside my letter as worth nothing.
Plutarch goes further back to describe an older Greek writing system, similar as he attested to the Egyptian writing. In his “Discourse Concerning Socrates’s Daemon”, he describes how Agesilaus king of Sparta, uncovers Alcmene’s tomb at Haliartus and discovers a brazen plate on which a very ancient script was written, much older than the Ancient Greek alphabet. Agesilaus sent a transcript to Egypt in order to be translated back into Ancient Greek. Agetoridas the Spartan travelled to Memphis of Egypt and gave the transcript to Chonouphis the Egyptian priest. Some scholars speculate that this plate was written in Linear B. Agesilaus’ decision to have text sent to Egypt is not unreasonable; it is widely accepted that Ancient Egyptians during the 4th century BC were able to translate to and from various other languages; they used three different writing systems within Egypt: hieroglyphic script, hieratic and demotic; this tradition continued during the Hellenistic period when all kinds of scripts were translated and copies were added to the library of Alexandria; one example today of a script written in three forms is the Rosetta Stone that appears in three texts: in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, in Egyptian demotic, and in ancient Greek. And therefore, as the story goes, the Egyptian priest, having studied the script and translated it, concluded that the writing enjoined the Greeks to institute games in honor of the Muses.
Before the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris, the written tablets in the Iliad were considered an anachronism. 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 Turkey in 1986. This find further confirmed that the reference to writing tablets in Homer was far from anachronistic.
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. 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.
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. 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. Writing tablets of ivory were found in the ruins of Sargon's palace in Nimrud. 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.
Use in medieval to modern times
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. 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. The fish market in Rouen used them even until the 1860s, where their construction and use had been well documented in 1849.
- Paper, a Chinese invention, did not reach the West until the Middle Ages: see history of paper.
- Hyginus (Fabulae, 105) revives an old account of a letter presumably sent to Palamedes from Priam but in fact written by Odysseus.
- Hom. Il. 6.156
- Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History, Book III, 65
- Plutarch, Theseus Plut. Thes. 20
- Plutarch, Theseus Plut. Thes. 25
- (Hyginus. Fabulae, 105)
- Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris, 725
- Plutarch, The Morals, vol. 2, A Discourse Concerning Socrates’s Daemon — online text
- Crossing boundaries and linking horizons: studies in honor of Michael C. Astour: "The alleged tomb of Alcmene was opened, and a bronze tablet was found there with a long inscription in an unknown script, which they thought resembled Egyptian signs. It was probably written in Linear B."
- Payton, Robert (1991). "The Ulu Burun Writing-Board Set". Anatolian Studies 41: 99–106.
- Εntry δέλτος (deltos) at Liddell & Scott
- Walter, Burkert (1995). The orientalizing revolution: Near Eastern influence on Greek culture in the early archaic age }location= Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. p. 30.
- "Stone Panel from the South-West Palace of Sennacherib (Room 28, Panel 9)". British Museum. Retrieved 8 January 2011.
- Van Regemorter, Berthe (1958). "Le Codex Relié À L'époque Néo-Hittite". Scriptorium 12: 177–81.
- Szirmai, J.A. (1990). "Wooden Writing Tablets and the Birth of the Codex". Gazette du Livre Médèvale 17: 31–32.
- Wiseman, D.J. (1955). "Assyrian Writing Boards". Iraq 17 (1): Plate III.
- Howard, Margaret (1955). "Technical Description of the Ivory Writing-Boards from Nimrud". Iraq 17 (1): 14–20; Fig. 7–11.
- Herman of Tournai, Lynn Harry Nelson, ed. and tr. The Restoration of the Monastery of Saint Martin of Tournai "Prologue" p. 11.
- Wilflingseder, F., 1964. "Die Urbare des Ennser Bürgerspitals aus den Jahren 1447 und 1500". Biblos 13, 134-45
- Büll, R., 1977. Wachs als Beschreib- und Siegelstoff. Wachstafeln und ihre Verwendung. In: Das große Buch vom Wachs. Vol. 2, 785-894
- 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
- Galling, K., 1971. "Tafel, Buch und Blatt" in Near Eastern Studies in Honour of W.F. Albright (Baltimore), pp 207-23
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