**Cuneiform On Wax**
An interdisciplinary project by Michele Cammarosano & Katja Weirauch, *Julius-Maximilians-Universität* Würzburg, [Ancient Near Eastern Studies] & [Didactics of Chemistry]
- The paper “*They Wrote on Wax. Wax Boards in the Ancient Near East*”
has been published (for download see below, *Publications*)
- The Würzburg University journal [*EinBLICK* reports on the *WoW! Writing on Wax* project] (issue Jan 2020) [PDF available also [here
], see pp. 21-23]
- The [Gerda Henkel Stiftung] approves funding for the project *„Schreiben auf Wachs im Alten Rom“. Interdisziplinäre Rekonstruktion der Herstellung und Verwendung römischer Wachstafeln* (AZ 54/V/19) by M. Cammarosano & R. Fuchs
- *[Cuneiform Lab]* at the *Iraq Museum*, Baghdad (April 2019), on behalf of the [Centro Archeologico Ricerche e Scavi di Torino]
- The *[Universitätsbund Würzburg]* approves funding for the *WOW! Writing On Wax* project (AZ 18-33, 19.3.2018)
## Background ##
Cuneiform script, used in the Ancient Near East over more than three millennia, represents one of the world’s earliest writing systems. With hundreds of thousands of recovered manuscripts, cuneiform texts constitute the widest pre-classical written corpus, a heritage of invaluable importance to understand the languages and civilizations of the Ancient Near East as well as the origins of urban culture. Cuneiform is characterized by wedge-shaped marks, typically obtained by impressing a stylus on the moist clay. Besides clay, cuneiform script was also used on stone, metal, and wax. The specific physical properties and challenges posed by the various mediums necessarily determined differences in the writing techniques used on them, as well as in the writing tools. Given the almost total absence of archaeological finds securely identifiable as styli, [cuneiform writing techniques] are best investigated by combining the evaluation of textual and iconographic sources with the analysis of wedge impressions. As far as the latter point is concerned, wax bears the disadvantage of being extremely perishable as compared to clay, stone, and metal, a fact which tends to obscure the place waxed boards had vis-à-vis other mediums within the cuneiform world.
Waxed boards were extensively used in the Ancient Near East, both for ephemeral records and for composition which were to be stored in libraries and erudite collections. Attested in textual sources from the end of the 3rd millennium BC onwards, writing boards are archaeologically documented for the 2nd and 1st millennium BC (examples are known from the Ulu Burun shipwreck, Aššur, and Nimrud). The boards were made of wood or ivory, two or more leaves being hinged together to form diptychs, triptychs, or polyptychs. The sunken portion of each leaf accomodated a layer of beeswax mixed with other substances, primarily yellow ochre (Akkadian *kalû*), which made the paste apt to be written on and gave it a yellowish colour.
On wax, both cuneiform and linear scripts like aramaic or hieroglyhps could be used. The existence of waxed boards inscribed in Luwian hieroglyphs in Hittite Anatolia is virtually assured by the discovery, at Boğazköy/Hattuša, of bronze styli with pointed tip and a spatula at the back end; Anatolian hieroglyphs continued to be used on waxed boards in Iron Age Syria. On the other hand, two of the Neo-Assyrian writing boards from Nimrud still preserve a portion of the wax layer inscribed with cuneiform signs. According to analyses performed in the 1950s in the British Museum laboratories, the wax layer of the Nimrud writing boards consists of beeswax compounded with ca. 25% sulphide of arsenic (orpiment). The use of orpiment, a highly toxic substance, was apparently aimed at giving this luxurious showpiece the appearance of gold.
New evidence suggests that cuneiform styli used for waxed boards were immersed in a special fat, probably serving as release agent to prevent the wax paste bonding to the stylus: in a letter to the Assyrian king Aššurbanipal, Babylonian scholars refer to “[ ... ] syrup, ghee and pressed (oil) for the kettle of their styli, to soak (them into it)” (BM 28825 obv. 17). Furthermore, styli connected with writing boards, as depicted on seals and reliefs, display two peculiarities as compared to those used for clay tablets: scribes with board-books are regularly shown holding the stylus with index and middle fingers extended; moreover, their styli seem to show a groove on one side. Which purpose did such a “groove” serve and how did it work? What features characterized the techniques used to write cuneiform on wax boards as opposed to clay tablets?
♣ One of the writing boards from Nimrud (ivory, each leaf 34 × 16 cm). BM 131952, © *The Trustees of the British Museum*
## Objectives & Results ##
Based at the Würzburg University, the “Cuneiform On Wax” project aimed to investigate the writing techniques used to write cuneiform on wax through a interdisciplinary experimental approach. For this purpose, it brought together the perspectives of philology (Department of Ancient Cultures, Ancient Near Eastern Studies), chemistry (Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy, Science Teaching), and biology (Department of Ecology and Tropical Biology), also availing itself of advice, collaboration and support from external scholars and institutions.
The research project was framed into two synergically interrelated branches. On the one side, it envisaged the reconstruction of waxed boards and writing implements, the experimentation of related writing techniques, and a critical reassessment of the role, diffusion, and terminology of beeswax and waxed boards in the Ancient Near East, with a special focus on the chemical composition of the wax paste and on matters of writing technology, manufacturing, and raw material supply.
The main results of this side of the project are presented in the paper “They Wrote on Wax. Wax Boards in the Ancient Near East”, 2019 (see below for download and further publications).
♣ Detail from the wall panel BM 124955 (Nineveh, South West Palace,
© *The Trustees of the British Museum*); experimental wax boards manufactured at the University of Würzburg
On the other side, the project aimed to develop innovative pedagogical programs for communicating research results to the public and involving schoolchildren in the research process, framed as a contribution in the transmission of ‘scientific literacy’ (NOSK, NOSI). The designed modules are addressed to schools, museums and ‘learning labs’, integrating history, chemistry, and biology around the topic of ‘writing on wax’. Two editions of the developed program *Keilschriftlabor* were staged in 2016 and 2019 respectively, and met with an enthusiastic response by the involved pupils (reports are available at the websites of the [*Riemenschneider Gymnasium Würzburg*] and of the Würzburg University journal [*EinBLICK*]). A complete kit for the realization of the *Keilschriftlabor* is at disposal of interested schools and museums.
The main results of this side of the project are presented in the paper “*WoW!* - Writing on Wax in ancient Mesopotamia and today. Questions and results from an interdisciplinary project” (in print, see below for further publications).
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♣ Cuneiform for kids: pupils of the *Riemenschneider Gymnasium Würzburg* take part in a Keilschriftlabor (Dec 2016, read their report [here])
## Cooperation & Support ##
The project was generously funded by the *[Universitätsbund Würzburg]* (grant no. AZ 18-33) as well as by the chairs of *Altorientalistik* (prof. Daniel Schwemer) and *Didaktik der Chemie* (prof. Ekkehard Geidel) of the University of Würzburg.
Of fundamental importance for the success of the project was the cooperation with Gert Jendritzki of the *[Vorderasiatisches Museum]* in Berlin. Access to the museum collections was kindly granted by Markus Hilgert and Lutz Martin. Advice and support from Jonathan Taylor and Mathilde Touillon-Ricci (*British Museum*, London) is gratefully acknowledged.
The constant support by Jochen Griesbach, director of the *[Martin von Wagner Museum]* of the University of Würzburg, as well as by the museum staff, especially Christina Kiefer and Miron Sevastre, is gratefully acknowledged. Miron Sevastre also generously contributed to the realization of experimental styli and of both *Cuneiform Labs*. Patrick Kohl ([Department of Animal Ecology and Tropical Biology] of the Würzburg University) joined the project on matters related to honeybees biology.
Special thanks are due to Robert Fuchs and Doris Oltrogge ([TH Köln, Cologne Institute of
Conservation Sciences]) and Heinrich Piening ([conservation department] of the Bavarian Administration of Palaces, Gardens and Lakes) for their invaluable help in discussing crucial issues related to the writing technology of wax board, as well as to Astrid Nunn and Jürgen Tautz for decisive help and advice in the earlier stages of the project.
## Publications ##
- Michele Cammarosano, Katja Weirauch, Feline Maruhn, Gert Jendritzki, Patrick Kohl, “They Wrote on Wax. Wax Boards in the Ancient Near East”, *Mesopotamia* LIV (2019), 121-180. PDF available [here]; *Supplementary material* available [here]).
- Gert Jendritzki, Matthias Streckfuss, Michele Cammarosano, “Technische und materialgerechte Rekonstruktion einer Elfenbein–Klapptafel aus Aššur”, MDOG 151 (2019), 201-218 ([PDF available here]).
- Katja Weirauch, Michele Cammarosano, “*WoW!* - Writing on Wax in ancient Mesopotamia and today. Questions and results from an interdisciplinary project”, in L. Raggetti (ed.), *Traces of Ink. Experiences of Philology and Replication* (Nuncius, Visual and material history of Science 7), 2021, 6-32 (PDF available [here]; also open access online at [brill.com]).
- Feline Maruhn, Katja Weirauch, Ekkehard Geidel, Michele Cammarosano: "Historische Wachstafel. Alte Medien neu entdeckt", *Praxis der
Naturwissenschaften* 2/66, 2017, 31-35 ([PDF available here]).
- Feline Maruhn, *Altorientalische Wachstafeln.* *Alte Medien neu
erforscht*. Zulassungsarbeit zur Ersten Staatsprüfung für das Lehramt
an Gymnasien. Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg, 2017.
- Invited talk: *[A scuola con Freud, Quintiliano, e Aššurbanipal. Un viaggio chimico-storico-didattico nel mondo delle tavolette cerate]* (conference [*Vivendo vincere saecula*. Ricezione e tradizione dell'antico], University of Trieste, 29-31.1.2020)
- Invited talk: [*Le tavolette cerate nel Vicino Oriente antico. Viaggio alla scoperta degli iPads cuneiformi tra chimica, storia, e archeologia sperimentale*] (Sapienza Università di Roma, 7.11.2019)
- Invited talk: *[They wrote on wax: Wachstafeln im Alten Orient]* (LMU München, 20.11.2018)
- Invited talk: *[Scribi optime ceris:
Schreiben auf Wachs von Gudea bis
Sigmund Freud]* (Universität Mainz, 7.11.2018)
- Invited talk: *They Wrote on Wax* ([Akademie der Wissenschaften und der Literatur Mainz], [HFR Summer School 2018], 19.9.2018)
- Invited talk: *WOW! Writing On Wax in the Ancient Near East and Beyond* ([ERC AlchemEast] workshop *[Traces of Ink]*, Bologna University, 12.7.2018)
- Invited talk: [*Scrivere sulla cera tra Oriente e Occidente*] (Turin University, 24.4.2018)
- F. Maruhn, K. Weirauch, E. Geidel, M. Cammarosano: *Cuneiform on Wax*, poster presented at the 63th *Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale*, Marburg, July 24-28 2017; a PDF is available [here].
- Weirauch, K.: *Die Chemie der Schreibmedien in der Geschichte: Ein fächerübergreifender Ansatz für
Unterricht, Schülerlabor und Museu*m. GDCh-Tagung, Berlin 2017.