Making Ancient Tablets 5 – Further stylus improvements

About a year ago I posted a series following my attempts to write Ugaritic cuneiform, first in plasticine and then in clay. I ended up using the square end of a chopstick for a stylus, and this is what I’ve been doing ever since, including in my cuneiform baking. It works, but it’s fiddly – the stick has to be held just right to make the wedge-shaped prints, and it takes practice to stop them being large and clumsy.

Last weekend I took part in a Prehistory and Archaeology Day as part of Cambridge University’s Festival of Ideas. Hosted by Cambridge Archaeological Unit, this offered hundreds of members of the public – mostly children – the chance to try their hands at a wide range of archaeology-related activities, from spear-throwing and archery to excavation and osteology. The ancient writing systems stall was particularly eclectic, with academics from the Faculty of Classics and the Division of Archaeology showing visitors how to write in Akkadian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Linear B and alphabetic Greek.



It was an excellent day, very busy despite warnings of strong winds. It’s always lovely to be able to share our enthusiasm for the ancient world with children and there was a surprising amount of interest even in the more difficult and unfamiliar writing systems like Ugaritic and Akkadian.


DSC_0140But it also offered me a chance to try out a different kind of stylus. Heading up the Akkadian end of our stall was Professor Nicholas Postgate, as eminent an Assyriologist as one could hope to find (and, yes, related to Oliver Postgate of Clangers and Ivor the Engine fame). Nicholas was also using chopsticks for his cuneiform, but he was using the pointy end, sharpened into a triangular nib.

Trying these instead of my own square-ended styli, the results were much better. It was easier to control the shape and orientation of the wedges, and they could be made far smaller. They gave sharper, more clearly defined wedges.



Top row – square end; bottom row – pointy end


For anyone wanting to write their own cuneiform – especially Akkadian – this is the method I’d recommend. I do suspect some Ugaritic tablets were probably made with larger, square-ended styli, based on the wedges, but there’s definitely room for both.

Ugaritic alphabet

If Ugaritic really did use a different kind of stylus to Akkadian, that’s potentially quite interesting, especially since so much else about how the writing was done follows the norms of Mesopotamian scribal practice very closely.

A few of my chopsticks ended up with triangular nibs over the course of the day, and I’m tempted to whittle them on to the others too. The only caveat is that it does make the end rather sharp, which isn’t ideal if very small children are using them (some of the visitors to our stall on Saturday were as young as three, writing Phoenician before they could write English).

Pictures courtesy of Laure Bonner at the Division of Archaeology.

EDIT – 25/10/2015

I’m grateful to Cassie Donnelly from the University of Texas for her comments pointing me in the direction of research by John Ellison. Through a combination of experimentation and examination of finds from Claude Schaeffer’s original excavations at Ugarit, he has shown very convincingly that square-ended styli were indeed most common at Ugarit, in contrast to the probably Mesopotamian preference for triangular-tipped ones. He also suggests that some had slightly slanted ends, which is something I’ll experiment with at some point.

The difference between Mesopotamian and Ugaritian practice may simply be a matter of the availability of the reeds used by Mesopotamian scribes, but any deviation from ‘standard’ Mesopotamian practice is interesting, and it’s something I plan to look into in more detail. It would also be interesting to look at whether Akkadian written at Ugarit uses square or triangular styli.


9 thoughts on “Making Ancient Tablets 5 – Further stylus improvements

  1. We know some of the ugaritic tablets were made with the square stylus because Jay Elisson recovered square tipped styli from the museum store rooms in his tour of Syria for his dissertation. The square tip seems to account for the difference in wedge size between much Akkadian and ugaritic found at Ras Shamra.


    • Thanks – that’s really helpful! I had a feeling I’d read something about square styli from Ugarit, but couldn’t remember for sure. Nice to know there’s some evidence to back up my impressions (no pun intended), especially since I’m only going off photos so far – I haven’t had a chance to look at real tablets yet.


      • Not off hand but his full name is John Lee Ellison and he graduated from Harvard. A nice synopsis is in a book chapter is “the scribal art at Ugarit” in The Scribal Art at Ugarit in Epigraphy, Philology and the Hebrew Bible” eds Jeremy Hutton and Aaron Rubin.


      • You’re welcome. Enjoy! It’s great that you landed on the square stylus yourself. Lmk if you find the Akkadian was written with triangular styli. At any rate, the styli are definitely smaller, which is something. While the ugaritic signs are often less complex than their non-alphabetic counterparts, I’d reckon the small stylus could have suited the script just fine if they had wanted it to. They seem to have wanted to do their own thing.


  2. Pingback: Learning about ancient writing

  3. Pingback: What to write with? Styli for clay tablets in the ancient Aegean and eastern Mediterranean

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