Cuneiform Digital Library Notes
2015:12        «              »
The Cuneiform Stylus. Some Addenda*

Armando Bramanti
Sapienza – Università di Roma and Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena

1. Introduction

NBC 6864 is an average Early Dynastic administrative text from the Umma region. Its peculiarity has nothing to do with the copper saws documented there, but rather with the published copy of this tablet: BIN 8, 257. The reverse of the tablet, which summarizes the contents, presents an obscure sign at the beginning of the second line, initially quite difficult to decipher (fig. 1a). Collating the tablet confirmed the numerical nature of the sign, which is in fact a deep impression of the stylus in clay. The depth of the wedge makes it hard for light to reach every point of its indentation (fig. 1b). This resulted in the unusual and not fully legible copy of a probably puzzled copyist. See figs. 1c-d for two additional views of the wedge.

Fig. 1: copy of the sign in BIN 8, 257 (a); frontal view of the sign (b); different views of the sign (c-d)

In this case, the scribe probably wanted to write the number 10, mostly written in ED by means of a round impression, but did not pay sufficient attention to the result. Here follows the schematic representation of the inner edges of the wedge (figs. 2a-b). For a more precise example of a similar cuneiform sign, see NBC 7014, obv. ii 2 and rev. i 1.

Fig. 2: pattern of the inner edges of the wedges (a); schematic representation of the impression (b)

This unconventional wedge allowed for the possibility of reconstructing the appearance of the tip of the writing tool on the basis of its impressions in the clay. Subsequently, it became clearer that accidental, clumsy impressions like the one of BIN 8, 257 show more than what they were supposed to: the necessity to collect a few more exemplars arose in this context. The aim of this contribution is to analyze these notable pieces of evidence, filling some gaps in the specialist literature, particularly in regards to the 3rd millennium. The analysis of such a dataset will also allow for a reconstruction of a hypothetical model of the cuneiform stylus.

2. Literature

Issues related to the materiality of cuneiform artifacts were treated extensively in the early Assyriological literature and then discussed in detail by L. Messerschmidt (1906 and 1907 – the second is an extended version of the same article), who stressed the importance of the writing tool (i.e., the cuneiform stylus) in the writing process and first reconstructed a stylus from a reed, according to the etymology of the word (Sum. gi-dub(-ba), Akk. qan-tuppi), literally “tablet reed”. In any case, this information should not dissuade one from taking other materials into consideration. D. O. Edzard was among the first to admit the possibility of a “dauerhafteres Schreibgerät” besides reed styli (Edzard 1980: 545). More recently, K. Volk cited literary sources for precious metal styli and for wooden or leather stylus-cases (Volk 2009: 281). Reconstructions of styli were occasionally provided (i.a. Clay 1906: 17-20; Falkenstein 1936: 5-7; Lieberman 1980: 345; Glassner 2000: 157-159), as well as descriptions of the writing technique by means of sequences of photo shots (Powell 1981: 427-430), educational movies (Am Anfang war der Keil – Schrift und Schreiben im Alten Orient, http://keilschrift.geschkult.fu-berlin.de, produced by the Institut für Altorientalistik of Freie Universität Berlin, and L’écriture cunéiform: écrire et compter, http://www.mae.u-paris10.fr/dossiers-thematiques-ecriture-cuneiforme-et-civilisation-mesopotamienne, produced by the Maison Archéologie & Ethnologie of CNRS, Universités Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense) and even amateur blogs (Writing Cuneiform, http://writingcuneiform.blogspot.it/, by David P. Wright, accessed 1 July 2015).

In this context the present author undertook a systematic review and study of the topic, and was made aware of “3D-Joins und Schriftmetrologie” (http://www.cuneiform.de/projekt/aktuelles.html), a joint project of the University of Würzburg, the Technical University of Dortmund, and the Academy of Sciences and Literature of Mainz. A study of the cuneiform stylus, already in an advanced state of preparation, was then part of their research program, and was recently published as Cammarosano 2014. The reader will find in this article a most complete bibliography of the topic and up to date iconographic and archaeological sources, with a focus on 2nd millennium Mesopotamian and Anatolian primary sources. What follows are only a few minor addenda to the thorough study of Cammarosano.

3. The cuneiform impression vel wedge

Cammarosano identifies the cuneiform impression, i.e. the wedge itself, and the writing tip of the stylus as a tetrahedron and a polyhedral cone, respectively (Cammarosano 2014: 79). The internal features of the tetrahedral impression, conveniently calibrated against the physical features of the clay and the mechanics of the writing process, are the only searchable evidence capable of suggesting the shape and the other features of the active polyhedral cone. Not every wedge offers enough data: as mentioned before, deeper wedges are the best candidates, while shallower wedges do not bring much to an autoptic examination (see, e.g., fig. 18c). For a terminological insight see fig. 3 and also Cammarosano et al. 2014: 9 and passim. Some of these features, occasionally commented on in the literature, are provided here for the reader’s convenience, together with new examples and schematic representations.

Fig. 3: A 7554 obv. iv 14 (a); faces of the wedge (top, right, left) (b); inner edges (right, left, spine) (c); inner angles (α: top=apertural angle; β: right; γ: left) (d).

3.1. Striated traces

Striated traces or fibrous impression can be seen on the right or left face of the wedges. It has been pointed out that the presence of such traces might be suggestive of a reed-pattern (among others Powell 1981: 426). This pattern is significantly more common, but still not exclusive, on the left face of a wedge, or on the lower face in case of horizontal wedges (fig. 4). However, its presence alone does not prove the use of a reed stylus, since similar traces can be left from wooden tools as well. Cammarosano corroborates experimentally Messerschmidt’s assumption about the inconvenience of a wooden stylus (Cammarosano 2014: 71, fn 110). Nevertheless, it was possible to use the same wooden tools for several days without any particular disadvantage. Both wooden and reed tools are prone to wear and tear, are easily produced, and do not require large volumes of raw material. This is also supported by the personal experience of other colleagues (Cécile Michel, personal communication, February 2015). The fibrous pattern is in any case not so widespread (see, for instance, Yoshikawa 1990: 357, and again Cammarosano 2014: 70-71, pace Powell 1981: 426). When present, it might be accompanied by other fibrous impressions on the top face of the wedge. In any case, the absence of this pattern in no way excludes the use of reed or wood.

Fig. 4: BM 140675 obv. i 3, fibrous impressions on the left face (a); schematic representation of a wedge with fibrous impressions (b); NBC 5824 obv. i 4, fibrous impressions on the lower faces (c).

3.2. Concavities and convexities

The inner edges of a wedge (either left or right or both) can be straight or curved (figs. 5a-b). Curved edges can be concave or convex (fig. 5c). Concavity and convexity of an inner edge correspond to a concave or convex face of the wedge. This might originate from several causes: (a) humidity and quality of the clay, which affect its adherence to the writing tool (convexity); (b) lateral tilt of wrist (convexity); (c) general shape of the writing tip (convexity and concavity). One concave face together with fibrous impressions on the opposite face of the wedge constitutes most likely the pattern of a reed stylus. Nevertheless, factors (a) and (b) can modify this pattern, making it hardly recognizable.

Fig. 5: A 7554 obv. iv 14, straight inner edges (a); NBC 5841 obv. i 1, concave left inner edge (b); NBC 5821 rev. 1, convex left inner edge (c).

3.3. Apertural angle(s)

The apertural angle is the angle formed by the left and the right inner edges (fig. 3d). It was already pointed out that most of the known apertural angles range from 10° to 95° (Driver 1976: 25-26). For evidence of a 40° apertural angle on a Jemdet Nasr fragment, see fig. 6 (adapted from Bramanti 2015: ¶ 4). This angle corresponds to the aperture of one of the angles of the section of the writing tool. Nevertheless, this is not a perfect match: the apertural angle can slightly decrease according to the humidity and stickiness factor, or increase due to the lateral tilt of the wrist. Hence, as a general rule, it ranges from slightly less than the angle of the writing tool upwards.

Fig. 6: A 2564 obv. i 1 (a); pattern of the inner edges of the wedge (b);
apertural angle between the left and the right inner edges (c)

3.4. Linear dimensions

The effective linear dimensions of the writing tool in no way influence the average tetrahedral impression of the wedge (pace Driver 1976: 26). There are only a few, mostly unintentional, traces which can tell the modern observer something about the effective dimensions of the stylus. Among others, deeper impressions which accidentally show other edges of the stylus (see 4. 1.), and other indirect pieces of evidence like segmented horizontal rulings (Cammarosano 2014: 74 and fig. 14).

3.5. Angle of incidence

The angle of incidence corresponds to the inclination of the writing tool at the moment of its contact with the clay. Different angles of incidence produced by the very same tool have as an effect a completely different wedge appearance (figs. 7a and 19b). This feature, especially in vertical wedges, is one of the most evident diagnostic elements to roughly date a cuneiform artefact at first sight. As a general rule, archaic wedges show a 90° angle of incidence, which gradually decreases over time until late wedges, which show an angle of incidence almost parallel to the surface. This variation is often appreciable when comparing the conventionally different styles of hand-copies (fig. 6b).

Fig. 7: schematic representations corresponding to the same wedge impressed with different angles of incidence (a); different styles of hand-copies (wedges arranged from earliest style cuneiform to latest) (b).

4. A cuneiform stylus: a hypothetical reconstruction

Some of the aforementioned features allow a hypothetical reconstruction of part of the stylus. The observation of concavities and of the apertural angles on a Jemdet Nasr fragment led the author to the reconstruction of the writing tip of an archaic stylus (Bramanti 2015: ¶ 4). Nonetheless, these features alone are not able to suggest a certain model of the whole tool. On the other hand, wedges like the one attested in BIN 8, 257 offer more incidental data to reconstruct not only the writing tip, but also another edge of the tool. Hence, a more plausible reconstruction of the so-called cuneiform stylus is possible.

4.1. Evidence

I hereby offer a selection of deeper wedges which show the impression of more than one edge of the stylus.

Fig. 8: A 7554 obv. iii 7 (a); A 7554 obv. i 5 (b); A 7554 obv. i 2 (c); SLPL W 2/7 obv. iv 11 (d); SLPL W 2/7 obv. iv 10 (e); BM 140675 obv. 1 (f); AO 15540 obv. ii 7 (g).

All these wedges share the same pattern of the inner edges (fig. 9), not unlike the wedge in BIN 8, 257, which doubtlessly reflects the use of a quadrangular section tool. This was initially a surprise, since most of the reconstructions – but still not all of them, see e.g. Marzahn 2003: Abb. 2 – point to a triangular section tool. Some of the selected examples show slightly curved inner edges and, consequently, convex or concave faces (e.g., fig. 8b-c). Appreciable convexity is quite well attested. The consequence of such observation applies not only to general considerations about the section of the writing tool, but also to the recognition of the linear dimension of the left inner edge of the wedge (fig. 10, in red). Some wedges also show particularly long right inner edges (fig. 10, in blue), although the recognition of their absolute linear dimension was in no case possible. This fact allows the calculation of the minimum ratio between right and left inner edges, which gives as a result not a squared but a nearly rectangular section. Needless to say, one does not need to do the math to appreciate the result.

Fig. 9: Pattern of the inner edges of the wedges in fig. 8. Fig. 10: A 7554 obv. i 5, short left inner edge (red), long right inner edge (blue).

It is no coincidence that most of the examples correspond to the signs for bur3 and eše3, which in land assignment texts had to be easily distinguishable from the iku figures, expressed by narrower wedges. A similar result can be observed in the MI sign as well (fig. 8g).

Other texts from the same age and region show more classical features like apertural angles from 60° to 90°, curved left or right inner edges, fibrous traces etc. Here follows another selection.

Fig. 11: NBC 5818 rev. 1 (a); BM 140672 col. 7 (b); BM 140673 obv. iii 4 (c); BM 140675 obv. i 3 (d); NBC 5822 obv. ii 5 (e).

If one discards the hypothesis of the existence of a set of several different tools which the scribe should have selected to fashion different figures and signs (sometimes also while compiling the same tablet), then one should look for a single implement capable of producing all of these traces. The result is a tool with a nearly rectangular section, at least one convex long side, occasionally a concave side, and evidence of fibrous impressions on the short side(s).

4.2. Experimental reconstruction

As the etymology of the word suggests, the first styli were most probably made of reed. Once the form and the basic features of the implement were fixed, scribes might have used various other materials to manufacture their writing tools. Quite obviously, the raw material used for this experimental reconstruction, a bamboo cane of 2.5 cm diameter, is not endemic in ancient Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, its subfamily (Bambusoideae) belongs to the same family (Poaceae) and order (Poales) as Arundo donax and Phragmites australis, two common species of reed in Mesopotamia which might have been designated by the word gi / qanû (Cammarosano 2014: 67-68). The main features of all these species are a body made by parallel fibers, a smooth external surface and a ringed section. Diameter, thickness of the ring, and other dimensions may vary a lot within the same species.

A slightly bowed segment of the ring perfectly meets the conditions of 4.1. (fig. 12a). Two light incisions on the top of the cane, alongside the direction of the fibers, were enough to split the tool from the body of the plant (fig. 13). There was no need for any particular tool like metal wedges or hammers (which is most probably the case of Messerschmidt’s tool, to perform the “a-b” incision, fig. 14; see also Cammarosano 2014: fig. 11). The two incisions were performed with an average knife, but it should be observed that squeezing the cane with the hands produces the same breaks, which may or may not need to be polished later. The whole process lasted seconds and was surprisingly easy to perform.

Fig. 12: schematic representation of the reed segment constituting the stylus (a); edge preferably used to write (area of contact with the clay marked in color), its angle (in red) is always between 60° and 90° (b).

Fig. 13: Manufacture of the reed stylus: incision of the cane with a knife (a); detaching of the segment (b)

Fig. 14: Messerschmidt’s stylus (1906: Abb. 6).

The angle between the convex long side and the short side of the tool (i.e., the apertural angle of the wedge impression) is always naturally between 60° and 90° (fig. 12b). Polish work may produce more acute angles as well as several types of bevelled edges. Figs. 15 and 16 offer a selection of styli and a close-up of their sections.

Fig. 15: Selection of manufactured styli.

Fig. 16: Close-up of the sections of the manufactured styli.

As previously mentioned, nothing excludes the use of different material in a second stage of the evolution of the stylus. For this reason, it might be illustrative to provide documentary evidence of another model of stylus with similar geometrical features (square or rectangular section, straight edges). The material is among the most used by both amateurs and professionals: disposable chopsticks (fig. 17).

Fig. 17: Chopstick styli and their standard vertical wedges.

The results are quite satisfactory, as already pointed out in another study of the present author (Bramanti forthcoming). Further polish work may modify the basic features of the tool and imitate the so-called reed-pattern.

4.3. Experimental trial

After having manufactured the set of styli of fig. 15, it was time to test them on the clay: fig. 18 associates every stylus with its peculiar standard vertical wedge.

Fig. 18: Manufactured styli and their standard vertical wedges.

The first stylus on the left (also the less refined) leaves the most plausible traces and was chosen for a full experimental trial. This trial included: (a) average vertical wedges impressed at different angles of incidence (fig. 19a-b); (b) shallow vertical wedges (fig. 19c); (c) the wedge form of BIN 8, 257 (fig. 19d); (d) the wedge form of A 7554 (fig. 19e-f). In every case, the trial produced the expected results.

Fig. 19: average vertical wedges with different angles of incidence (a-b); shallow vertical wedges (c); reproduction of the wedge form of BIN 8, 257 (d); reproduction of the wedge form of A 7554 (fig. 7) (e-f).

5. Beyond Early Dynastic

Almost the totality of the examples provided so far date to the ED IIIb period. Nevertheless, the model of stylus here provided fits the evidence of many other periods. It was possible to find the wedge form of A 7554 in an Ur III seed and fodder text (fig. 20a) together with the classic reed-pattern (fig. 20b). More general patterns are found in Ur III (fig. 20c), Old Babylonian (fig. 20d) and Late Babylonian times (fig. 20e): all of them are compatible with the tool reconstructed here.

Fig. 20: VAT 2202 obv. v 9, same wedge form as that found in A 7554 (adapted from Marzahn 2003: Abb. 1) (a); VAT 2202 obv. i 2, concave right inner edge (b); SIL 66 obv. 1, reed-pattern (concave right inner edge and fibrous impressions on the left face) (c); BM 23384 obv. 5, concave right inner edge (d); BM 66897 obv. i 4’, convex left inner edge (e).

SIL 34 (fig. 21a), as many other tablets dating to the 2nd and 1st millennia, shows a pattern which is otherwise uncommon in ED times: an acute right inner angle. This pattern can be easily reproduced using the fourth stylus from the left (fig. 15), which was fashioned with a bevelled edge. Figs. 21b-c show the experimental results obtained using this stylus.

Fig. 21: SIL 34 low. e. 1, acute right inner angle (a); reproduction of acute right inner angles with a bevelled stylus (b-c).

6. Conclusions

The model of stylus reconstructed here fits most of the Early Dynastic evidence and is compatible with many traces found in later tablets. The most striking pattern is the one of A 7554 (figs. 8 and 9), which was found to be attested at least until Ur III times (VAT 2202, fig. 20b). Cammarosano points out the existence of a roughly trapezoidal hole in the lower edge of VAT 8535, with one side being slightly curved and compatible with the wedge impressions on the tablet (Cammarosano 2014: 70). A similar deep trapezoidal impression can be found on NBC 5820 (fig. 22). Both impressions might provide linear dimensions which are otherwise rarely attested. This fact anchors the presence of this type of reed stylus in lower Mesopotamia roughly between Early Dynastic IIIb and Old Babylonian times.

Fig. 22: NBC 5820 r. e., trapezoidal accidental impression and schematic representation of its pattern of the inner edges (a-b); NBC 5820 r. e., different view and schematic representation (c-d).

Slightly different traces in tablets belonging to the same cultural horizon or even on wedges of the same tablet do not invalidate the hypothesis of the usage of the same stylus: in fact, this stylus is equipped with four different edges, with virtually different apertural angles, surface patterns and bevels, capable of producing different traces on the clay. This feature might have been exploited more or less consciously by the scribes.

This model does not invalidate other models, which might have existed in other periods and/or regions of the cuneiform world, if not contemporaneously. Nonetheless, it must be recognized that this reconstruction does not fit the evidence of the round traces of many Early Dynastic (and prior) figures: did scribes use different tools for them? Were the nodes of the reed cane somehow involved in the manufacture of such tools? Most of the reconstructed models point to a tool with a round extremity, opposite of the writing tip: round figures would have been performed by flipping the stylus. However, the round section of a cane is unavoidably a ring. Neither ringed pattern nor fibrous impressions have been observed in the round figures, which – on the contrary – present an extremely polished surface. Such results might be obtained by plugging the empty ringed section of the cane with some clay, wax, bitumen or other raw material (Manuel Molina, personal communication, June 2015). As a matter of course, the diameter of the cane should correspond to that of the full round impressions (as in the case of the figure for 10 units or for one bur3). Whether these round traces and the average wedges can be fashioned by a tool with the same diameter is not easy to prove: further computer-based analysis might provide an answer.

However, a mixed system of average wedges and round impressions was probably more complicated to manage, the latter gradually disappearing by the end of the 3rd millennium. The sporadic presence of different measures of round impressions bears witness to such complexity, and actually suggests the usage of different tools at least in this specific case (e.g., NBC 5817).

To sum up, the model of stylus presented above fits the discussed material evidence at least from ED to OB times in lower Mesopotamia without raising any major problem. The round, (mostly) numerical impressions used during the 4th and most of the 3rd millennia are not compatible with this model, but the evidence points to the use of several tools with a round extremity, which might consequently be other than the so-called cuneiform stylus. The nodes of the reed or filled round canes may have been involved in the manufacture of these tools.

To conclude, a closer observation of the internal features of the wedges might in the future provide further diagnostic elements which allow for the discernment of regional and chronological varieties in the manufacture of the most ancient writing tool in history, the cuneiform stylus. This may eventually add another variable toward a diachronic and diatopic understanding of cuneiform palaeography.

Catalogue of mentioned texts

Museum no. Date Provenance Topic Main publication
A 2564 Uruk III Jemdet Nasr Grain (emmer) account Bramanti 2015
A 7554 ED IIIb Umma region Field assignments Powell 1978, 1
AO 15540 ED IIIb Umma region Field assignments Sollberger 1959: pl. V
BM 23384 OB Larsa ? Legal document CatBM II, 97-5-15, 62
BM 66897 LB Sippar Lexical CatBM VII, 82-9-18, 6891
BM 140672 ED IIIb Umma region Field assignments Bramanti (in preparation)
BM 140673 ED IIIb Umma region Field assignments Bramanti (in preparation)
BM 140675 oAkk Umma ? Items for a door Bramanti (in preparation)
NBC 5817 ED IIIb Umma region Outstanding expenditures of copper BIN 8, 97
NBC 5818 ED IIIb Umma region Expenditures of barley Powell 1978, 11
NBC 5820 ED IIIb Umma region Personnel list BIN 8, 18
NBC 5821 ED IIIb Umma region Expenditures of barley BIN 8, 48
NBC 5822 ED IIIb Umma region Field assignments BIN 8, 76
NBC 5824 ED IIIb Umma region Field assignments BIN 8, 57
NBC 5841 ED IIIb Umma region Field assignments BIN 8, 77
NBC 6864 ED IIIb Umma region Distributions of copper saws BIN 8, 257
NBC 7014 ED IIIb ? Inventory of goods BIN 8, 110
SIL 34 OB Kiš ? Letter LAOS 1, 47
SIL 66 Ur III Umma Barley loan LAOS 1, 12
SLPL W 2/7 ED IIIb Umma region Field assignments Brinkman 1976: 48
VAT 2202 Ur III Girsu Seed and fodder text TuT 5
VAT 8535 OB Larsa ? Personnel list VS 18, 72


BIBLIOGRAPHY




Bramanti, Armando
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* I thank the curators and the personnel of the following institutions for kindly putting at my disposal their cuneiform collections: the British Museum, the Free Library of Philadelphia, Musée du Louvre, the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, the St. Louis Public Library, Universität Leipzig, and the Yale Babylonian Collection. William McGrath revised the English form of this contribution, but I bear the full responsibility for any mistakes or inaccuracies. Photos and graphic elaborations by the author (VAT 2202 adapted from Marzahn 2003: Abb. 1; photos of NBC 5820 by Dr. Enrique Jiménez). The title refers to Cammarosano 2014.
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