Wednesday, October 10, 2012

6. Some Homemade Tablets & Bibliography

Here are some homemade tablets using the techniques in posts 1–5 (see archive October 2012). The clay used is fireable/potter's clay from the craft store (though the tablets are not fired and don't need to be.) 

The tablet below is a heftly loaf of clay with relatively large signs.

The following two pictures are of extracts from the Vassal Treaties of Esardaddon (VTE) with a fake seal impression. I wrote this to experiment with writing a tablet over multiple days. (I wrote one column per day over a week.) To keep the clay moist I covered the tablet with a damp (not wet) hand towel. It worked perfectly. My hand in the picture gives an idea of how small the signs are.

The following are some laws from the Laws of Hammurabi, written in small signs:

The following is a basket of tablets:

A closeup of the basket:

A multi-column tablet with some of the Laws of Hammurabi:

Closeup of some laws:


Bramanti, Armando. "The Cuneiform Stylus: Some Addenda." At Illustrated discussion of the type of stylus used to write cuneiform.

Cammarosano, Michele. "The Cuneiform Stylus." Mesopotamia. Revista di Archeologia, Epigrafia e Storia Orientale Antica XLIX. Firenze: Le Lettere, 2014. Pp. 53–90 and Pl. 1. (Check for availability on

Finkel, Irving and Jonathan Taylor. Cuneiform: Ancient Scripts. Ancient Scripts Series. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2015. A nicely illustrated museum book with good photos of a variety of texts and explanation of the writing system. See pp. 74–80 on the stylus and techniques of writing.

Huehnergard, John. Introduction to Ugaritic (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012). See pp. 19–20 for a diagram of Ugaritic signs with the order in which the strokes were written in antiquity. 

Radner, Karen and Eleanor Robson. The Oxford Handbook of Cuneiform Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Thicket, David; Marianne Odlyha; and Denise Ling. "An Improved Firing Treatment for Cuneiform Tablets." Studies in Conservation 47/1 (2002): 1-11.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

5. Making the Basic Wedges

Default position
When you have a suitable writing surface you are ready to begin writing cuneiform. Use a stylus with a square or angled end. (The pictures here feature an angle-end stylus.) Take the stylus in your right hand, much like you would hold a pencil, but with the prepared end extending about an inch or inch and a half from the fingers (see picture, right). If you are using an angled-stylus, the angle should slope downward. The flat part of the stylus (the long sides of the rectangle that you sanded down) should be against the thumb and in "valley" formed by the index and middle fingers. Using the thumb, roll back the stylus very slightly so that the the thumb will be slightly pressed against the upper edge its flat side. This puts the back edge in the position for writing horizontal wedges. This position is the default position

Horizontal Wedges:

Position for making horizontal wedges
Horizontal wedges are made by the back bottom long edge of the stylus and the corner of this edge at the tip. The stylus should be held at an angle close to the surface. The head of the wedge, made by the corner of the tip, will be the deepest part of the impression and the tail (the horizontal line) will gradually rise to the surface. Practice making horizontal wedges and signs so that they look as close to real cuneiform signs as possible. The order of horizontal strokes is basically from top to bottom and left to right. (For more details on order, see below.) With some practice you will be able to vary the length of the horizontal line by adjusting the angle of the stylus to the tablet. Some wedges require long horizontal tails to create a box or space in or on which to write other strokes.

Position for making vertical wedges

Vertical Wedges:

Vertical wedges are made by rolling the stylus backward almost (but not quite) 180 degrees between the fingers using the thumb. While holding the stylus in the default position described for horizontal wedges, pull the thumb back so that the thumb is against the other (opposite) flat side of the stylus, somewhat against the bottom edge. The vertical wedge is made by the long opposite edge of the rectangular tip, using the upper corner (see the diagram showing the edges to be used, below). The length of vertical wedges is limited by the width of long rectangular side of the stylus (again, see the line diagram below). The order of writing vertical wedges is from left to right and top to bottom.

In order to get a vertical wedge with a more symmetrical head (rather than one where the head sweeps out on the right almost like a horizontal wedge), steepen the angle of the stylus to the writing surface. Let the form you want to produce determine the stylus angle by experimentation.

Beginners sometimes make vertical wedges that look more like rectangles than wedges. Make sure you press the corner of the stylus into the clay to form the head. Don't press the whole vertical side equally into the clay. The tail of the wedge is made by a gradual shallowing of the stylus edge in the clay. 

The following diagram summarizes how horizontal and vertical wedges are made by showing the corners and edges of the stylus used. The area used for vertical wedges looks upside down, but this makes sense when it is realized that the stylus is to be rotated, as described above:

Even though the stylus angle may shift slightly between horizontal and vertical wedges, you will find that the technique of rolling the stylus between the fingers for the two types of wedges allows rather rapid writing, especially since many signs consist of only these two types of wedges.

Small Angular Wedges and the Winkelhaken:
Position for small wedges and the Winkelhaken

Various angular wedges (small wedges and the Winkelhaken) require a shift in stylus angle. Start by holding the stylus in the position for writing vertical wedges. Then push the index finger down so that the tail of the stylus shifts up 45-degrees relative to vertical-wedge position. Compare the position of the fingers in the image on the left with the picture of the hand making a vertical wedge, above. The shift of the stylus tip down thus will require moving the hand up relative to the tablet to keep the wedge on the same textual line. Make the wedge by using the back upper corner of the stylus. Larger wedges are made by pressing harder (deeper); smaller wedges are made by a lighter impression. Groups of wedges are made working left to rightf they are diagonal, they are made from bottom to top (moving left to right).   

Less Frequent Diagonal Wedges:
nu sign
šum sign
tim sign
Some signs have unusual strokes, such as the upward diagonal of the nu and tim signs, and the downward diagonals of the tim or šum. The upward diagonal of the nu is made by holding the stylus in the  position for horizontal wedges and pushing down the finger as if making a wedge. This puts the stylus in the position to make and upward diagonal with the back long edge normally used for horizontals. The downward horizontal of the šum sign is made by changing the angle of the hand (twisting the knuckles back toward the elbow and bending the wrist inward) so that one can make a diagonal horizontal stroke.

Order of Wedges:

The order of strokes has been partly described above. One basically moves from left to right and top to bottom. The order of strokes in some signs may be confusing. If a sign begins with a vertical and a horizontal underneath (e.g., ku, lu, ib), the vertical is made first and the bottom horizontal comes next (see the order given for the lu sign below). Then the other parts of the signs are written, in the order described. To repeat what was said above, a row of diagonal wedges are drawn bottom to top (which is essentially left to right). The sa sign seems best drawn by drawing the two horizontals and then inserting the three verticals. The ak sign is made in the order left horizontal, vertical, bottom box horizontal, top box horizontal, the two inner horizontals, and finally the last vertical.

John Huehnergard, Introduction to Ugaritic (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), 19–20, has a diagram of Ugaritic signs with the order in which the strokes were written in antiquity. A main difference with what I described above is that a stack of horizontal wedges (for example, in the h sign) is written from bottom to top.

Size of the Signs:

The more deeply one presses, the larger and distinctive the wedge and sign. One should learn to write in both a delicate (shallow) as well as an aggressive (deep) hand. Some signs will require small delicate detail in the middle of an otherwise coarser framework. The depth, aggressiveness, or size of the signs will be limited by the length of the edge that makes the vertical strokes. The smaller the signs, the more text one will be able to put on a tablet. But the smaller the signs, the more difficult it is to read and to write complex signs. If you are using clay that can dry and it seems too soft, form the tablet blank and let it sit for a few hours or even a day before writing. 

Relationship of Wedge Strokes:

Successive wedges added to a particular sign often alter the shape of wedges written earlier. In the actual example of the lu sign above, the bottom horizontal overwrites the tail of the first vertical, and the second vertical (stroke 6) clips the end of the three horizontals just before it. In addition the writing of the final vertical (stroke 7) pushes against and scrunches up the vertical before it. Such overwriting, clipping, and scrunching give a sign its finished look and add an element of style. 

In addition, practice will allow a cuneiform writer to use the clay's plasticity to advantage. For example, a wedge may be formed by starting a millimeter or two out from its final position and pushing its head into position, toward the left, top, or top-left. This helps with aligning parallel stacks and stands of wedges. 

4. Preparing the Writing Surface

Your first tablets should be relatively small. Start with a single stick of plasticine clay. Knead the clay to warm it slightly and roll it into a ball in the palms. Then press the ball between the palms into a loaf or lentil shape (this may be circular or slightly rectangular). Do not make a flat pancake. You want a convex or gibbous shape that allows for keeping the stylus at shallow angle to the clay but does not force the writing hand against the clay surface. Later on when you make larger tablets, you will still want to create loaf shaped tablets.  

After you press the tablet into its basic loaf shape you may want to flatten the writing surface. Do this by laying the blank on a table surface and rocking it lightly from side to side and top to bottom. Do the same for the reverse side. (You can put a piece of paper on the surface to provide a smoother surface and to protect it from clay residue.) Don't over flatten. Make sure to retain the convex shape on both sides.

(For much larger tablets, the face of a tablet may be made smooth by lightly rolling a dowel (about 1" in diameter), as a rolling pin.

You may also want to square off the edges. Do this by pressing or lightly tapping the edges on a smooth table or surface. Make sure you retain the convex or loaf shape of the writing surface.  

3. Selecting Clay

Any non-rubbery clay can be used for writing (i.e., do not use Playdough or clay made of flour and salt).

For beginners all you need is plasticine clay (i.e., nondrying oil based clay, as made by Crayola, etc.). All-purpose craft stores have neutral and natural colored plasticine clays.  

For more advanced work, one can use clays that dry. For permanent projects I use regular potter's or modeling clay that is fireable. This can also be bought at craft stores. 

You'll find that this type of clay is more susceptible to nuances in stylus pressure. Because this clay dries, you can also let it dry out a bit to write smaller cuneiform signs (dryer clay allows for writing shallower and hence smaller signs). This type of clay also shrinks when it dries and thus creates artful contours in the signs (see the image here as well as here). You can also experiment with big projects in this type of clay. This type of clay allows you to preserve your work.  

While potter's clay is fireable, it is not necessary to fire any of the tablets that you make using it. It air dries hard enough to last, and is durable enough if the tablets don't get knocked around excessively (and if your dog doesn't eat them--really, this happened to me; the dog did eat my homework). In antiquity, the majority of everyday tablets were not fired. 

Further reading:

On the modern firing of cuneiform clay tablets for preservation, see:

Thicket, David; Marianne Odlyha; and Denise Ling. "An Improved Firing Treatment for Cuneiform Tablets." Studies in Conservation 47/1 (2002): 1-11.