Ancient beeswax writing tablets

A few years ago, we were contacted by a teacher who wanted to purchase beeswax for a school project to make replica wax writing tablets. I had not heard of beeswax being used in this form before, and was fascinated to learn how wax was a commonly used medium for writing.

The wax tablet is a wooden frame, like a shallow tray, which is filled with beeswax a few mm deep. This beeswax is then written upon by scraping the surface with a stylus made from iron, bronze or bone and flattened at one end to make an eraser (or literally a scraper). The beeswax can then be warmed, and the surface smoothed over to be re-used. This was ideal in a time when early paper, or papyrus was very expensive.

A reproduction Roman wax tablet and stylii (image - Wikimedia commons)

A reproduction Roman wax tablet and stylii (image - Wikimedia commons)

It is thought that the Greeks first started using a folded pair of tablets bound together with leather around the 8th century. Beeswax writing tablets were common throughout ancient Greece and Rome and the middle ages. They are thought to have been used widely by many cultures and in many contexts, from students to secretaries and business account keepers. They were also bound together to form books (ancient filofax)!

The earliest beeswax writing tablets that have been found are from a 14th century shipwreck near Turkey. They were still being used at a fish market at Rouen in the 1860's.

Interestingly, the Latin "tabula rasa" is said to mean "clean slate", which due to to the historical familiarity we have of writing on slate with chalk, creates a metaphor we can relate to. However, the literal translation is "a scraped tablet".