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
1 Technology and applications
2 Use in antiquity
3 Use in medieval to modern times
5 Further reading
Technology and applications
Writing on the wax surface was performed with a pointed instrument, a
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
Mycenaean Greek written in Linear B. Archaeological
Museum of Mycenae.
Writing with stylus and folding wax tablet. painter, Douris, ca 500 BC
Roman scribe with his stylus and tablets on his tomb stele at Flavia
Solva in Noricum
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. 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.
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
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
Use in medieval to modern times
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".
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
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.
^ Payton, Robert (1991). "The Ulu Burun Writing-Board Set". Anatolian
Studies. 41: 99–106. doi:10.2307/3642932.
^ Εntry δέλτος (deltos) at Liddell & Scott
^ Walter, Burkert (1995). The orientalizing revolution: Near Eastern
influence on Greek culture in the early archaic age. 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
^ 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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