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Books - The History of Writing Systems

Clay tablet


The first of the early writing systems, was the tablet. These were made from clay with an impression being made whilst the clay was soft. The impressions or pictures that were impressed into these tablets, were much later converted into written words.

The alternative to this method was actually carving a piece of stone with small chisels to form the hand writing or the picture.

Often tablets or clay cylinders that have been unearthed, give evidence of the life and times of many ancient civilisations. Without these records, ancient ways and customs would be lost.

Ancient Scrolls


The introduction of scrolls were a huge leap forward if we consider the fragility of the tablet.

Scrolls were the first form of editable record keeping texts, used in Eastern Mediterranean civilisations. Scrolls were manufactured from a number of materials including skins of deer, calf, lamb or goat, not forgetting paper and papyrus.

In early Christian times, scrolls became very valuable, and were often stored in protected leather cases.

As is true today, the Chinese were competing with the West with all forms of writing materials.

They were writing on bone, shells, wood and silk by the 2nd century BC.

Paper (papyrus)


Was invented in China around the 1st century AD. This was invented by a man called Ts’ai Lun. He found a way to make paper from the stringy inner bark of the mulberry tree.

The Chinese pounded the bark in water to separate the fibres, then poured the soup mixture onto a tray, with a bottom of thin bamboo strips. The water drained away and the soft mat was laid on a smooth surface to dry. And there we had paper!

The paper manufacturing process has changed a lot over the centuries, but the need for the printed page has dwindled, especially since the launch of the modern "tablet" and electronic "book reader"

Relief of a person examining a wax tablet

Wax tablet.

A wonderful material to work with. Wax tablets could be used for mark making, taking impressions, writing or pretending you are roman! Warm the wax to start all over again.!

To write on a wax tablet you needed something sharp. A stylus had a point at one end and a flat area on the other end. You wrote with the pointed end and used the flat end to erase the text if you had finished with it.

Writing in a layer of wax needed more effort than using a pen does today. To form the letters and words the scribe had to move the stylus in and out of the wax layer. Wax is stiff, so it needed pressure to form the letters.

On the other hand, the wax tablet was reusable. By warming the tablet it would smooth out the wax leaving a brand new surface to write on. The Latin expression tabula rasa, used to describe an absence of preconceived ideas, literally means 'scraped tablet'. In other words, a wax tablet with the writing erased, a clean surface.

So, the Wax Tablets acted as a reusable and portable writing surface in Antiquity.