Cuneiform Digital Library Notes
2016:1        «              »
On ‘Firing Holes’ and the Cuneiform Stylus*

Strahil V. Panayotov
BabMed Project, Berlin

The article discusses differently shaped ‘firing holes’, arguing that round, triangular, trapezoidal, or even oval ‘firing holes’ might have been pierced by a tip of the cuneiform stylus. In addition, some ‘firing holes’ suggest that a cuneiform stylus might have had two different ends: one end having been used for writing cuneiform, and the other for making the ‘firing holes’.

1. ‘Firing Holes’

The function of the so-called ‘firing hole’ is unclear. Generally, it is considered that a ‘firing hole’ had nothing to do with the baking of a tablet (see Walker 1987: 24; Fincke 2003–2004: 126, note 124; Taylor 2011: 15–16). However, ‘firing holes’ certainly helped a tablet to dry out faster and more evenly. But was this really essential in hot parts of Mesopotamia? In order to avoid confusion, I will name the ‘firing holes’ simply ‘holes’, but designate them by their shape, i.e., round, triangular holes etc.

Differently shaped holes have appeared on tablets from Old Babylonian times (see 3, below). At a certain point it seems that they ‘became a matter of tradition’ (Walker 1987: 24), and were consequently widespread in the first Millennium BC. Frequently, round holes were arranged in a decorative way, for instance on Maqlū tablets: K 2728+, K 43+. Such careful arrangements would suggest a decorative function for these round holes (Robson 2008: 198), aside from a practical one. But, differently shaped holes were not always found in nice patterns. Therefore, the idea that these holes served only a decorative function can be excluded.

In addition, it has been proposed that oval holes, for instance, might have been used ‘to eliminate open spaces where later additions to the text could be made’ (Jeyes 2000: 371). In other words, the positioning of these holes might have been used to prevent future textual changes (in case the tablet was not baked). This idea also seems to be partly incorrect since occasionally there are a lot of empty spaces with no holes in some parts of tablets, while other parts of the same tablet have holes. For instance, a manuscript of UGU 1 (BAM 480) shows round holes on the obverse, but none on the reverse.

Commonly, round holes tend to get thinner in the deeper parts of tablets, suggesting that they were left by a cone-shaped object. Aside from these common round holes there are also triangular, trapezoidal and oval ones (Fincke 2003–2004: 141; Taylor 2011: 15–16), which are rare in comparison to the round holes.

Ironically, thanks to broken tablets we can see cross sections of the holes.

2. Triangular Holes and Cuneiform Stylus

Let us first look at images of tablets in Assyrian and Babylonian hand, and then discuss them.

Assyrian hand

(1) VAT 8803 (KAR 31) (Fig. 1): Ca. 10,7×6,5×1,1–1,9 cm. There are numerous triangular holes measuring ca. 3×3×3 mm. Nicely inscribed, baked Ashur tablet showing numerous triangular holes (recent edition in Geller 2016: 38ff.).

Fig. 1
(Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Vorderasiatisches Museum, Inv. Nr. VAT 8803)

(2) K 8538 (CT 33 10) (Fig. 2); A Nineveh planisphere with round and triangular holes.

Fig. 2

Babylonian hand

(3) AO 8647 (unpublished) (Fig. 3). Its holes are similar in shape to those in figs. 1 and 2.

Fig. 3

Add also TCL 6/1: Its holes are similar to fig. 3.

(4) K 2875+ (Fig. 4); Ca. 9,2×6,8×3 cm; This Nineveh tablet is written in Babylonian hand, showing several triangular holes measuring ca. 3,5×3,5×2,5 mm. (; Borger 1991: 53).

Fig. 4

(5) MLC 1865 (BRM 4 12); A Late Babylonian tablet from Uruk with numerous triangular holes.

All tablets with triangular holes carry literary texts from different genres: VAT 8803 has a prayer and instruction for the exorcist; K 8538 is a planisphere; K 02875+ contains a canonical lamentation; and MLC 1865 is an omen text. Thus, triangular holes are not genre specific.

Notably, the triangular ‘holes’ on the tablets in Assyrian hand, figs. 1 and 2 show important similarities. They are left by an object that has a triangular profile, which changes into a round profile. The round part may get thinner at the end. Thus, if one pierced the clay a bit, it left a round impression. But if one stuck it in deeper, the impression left on the surface of the tablet would be triangular, while deeper inside the hole the profile would be round. This can be well observed in the broken top corner of the left edge on VAT 8803, fig. 1, and in the ‘holes’ on K 8538, fig. 2. Thus, the profile of the object’s end that left those traces must have been shaped like fig. 5-left.

Fig. 5

On the contrary, the holes’ profile of K 2875+ shows a different shape, fig. 4. The tip of the triangular object, which pierced the clay, seems sharply pointed. Thus, the profile of the object’s end that left those traces might have been shaped like fig. 6-left.

Fig. 6

However, it remains unclear from the break in the tablet (see fig. 4) if the object had a sharp, arrow-like point at its end, like fig. 6-left. If not, this end could also have been shaped like fig. 7-left.

Fig. 7

It is obvious that the triangular holes on the tablets in Assyrian hand, from Ashur and Nineveh, were left by an object, which is different than the object that left the triangular holes on K 2875+ in Babylonian hand.

According to Christopher Walker (1987: 24), the ‘firing holes’ might have originated from the cuneiform stylus. Yet, the end of the instrument that left the wide spread round ‘holes’ could not create the wedges. However, the other end of the object, which left the holes on VAT 8803 (fig. 1), and on K 8538 (fig. 2), might have had a triangular end like fig. 5-right.

Notably, the body of the cuneiform stylus is often depicted as having a triangular shape (Cammarosano 2014: 61; in addition to the images discussed there add also Wiggermann 2008). So one end of the instrument left holes (as on VAT 8803, fig. 1; K 8538, fig. 2), and the other end might have easily been used as a stylus, shaped like fig. 5. If this is true, this will mean that a stylus used for writing Assyrian script had two differently shaped ends, as occasionally suspected (Fincke 2014: 277). The one end had a triangular profile and the other end had a thinner conical shape. Thus, one could use the stylus shaped like fig. 5 to write wedges with an end like fig. 5-right, and with the other end shaped like fig. 5-left one could pierce round or triangular holes, as on figs. 1 and 2, or even draw dividing lines and rulings.

However, one model of stylus ‘does not invalidate other models, which might have existed in other periods and/or regions of the cuneiform world, if not contemporaneously’ (Bramanti 2015: 6 Conclusions). This might be reflected on K 2875+, and on the trapezoidal holes below. Generally, the reconstructions (figs. 5, 6, 7) align with the known images of the cuneiform stylus (Cammarosano 2014: 61).

3. Trapezoidal Holes and Cuneiform Stylus

Let us first look at images of tablets in Assyrian and Babylonian hand, and then discuss them.

Assyrian hand

(1) K 162; Late Assyrian tablet. Three holes only at the reverse of the tablet.

Babylonian hand

(2) VAT 8535 (VS 18/72); Old Babylonian tablet. There is only one hole at the bottom of the tablet. Discussed by Commarosano 2014: 70 and Baramanti 2015: 6. Conclusions.

(3) BM 96573 (Fig. 8); There is a detailed description of the holes in Alster and Walker 1989: 10f.; see also Jeyes 2000: 371. Fincke 2014: 277 note 16. Old Babylonian. There are three holes at the bottom of the tablet but only the middle hole is trapezoidal, others are oval, suggesting that they were left by a different tool. The trapezoidal hole originated most probably by the reed segment used as a stylus (Alster and Walker 1989: 10; Bramanti 2015: 4.2. Experimental reconstruction). In addition, there is a lump of clay attached secondarily to the tablet, which would suggest re-usage of the tablet. Note that the Old Babylonian tablets show holes only at the bottom so far.

Fig. 8

(4) K 41+; Elongated holes on the obverse and reverse, discussed by Fincke 2014: 279. Note that the shape of the holes is occasionally similar to BM 96573, fig. 8. Such trapezoidal holes might have originated by the reed segment used as a stylus (Alster and Walker 1989: 10; Bramanti 2015: 4.2. Experimental reconstruction).

(5) BM 47753; Elongated holes on the obverse and reverse, discussed by Fincke 2014: 279. Note that the shape of the holes is occasionally similar to K 41+ and BM 96573, fig. 8. Such trapezoidal holes might have originated by the reed segment used as a stylus (Alster and Walker 1989: 10; Bramanti 2015: 4.2. Experimental reconstruction).

(6) BM 92687; Several holes on the obverse. Some holes on the reverse tend to have more triangular profile than trapezoidal.

(7) BM 36388+ (Fig. 9); The holes were made by an object that had a conical, round end on the thinner part, and a trapezoidal profile on the thicker part.

Fig. 9

(8) BM 34660+ (Fig. 10); Contrary to BM 36388+, the object that left the impressions was round at the thicker profile but trapezoidal at the thinner end.

Fig. 10

All tablets with trapezoidal holes carry texts from different genres:

The Old Babylonian ones: VAT 8535 contains lists of persons, and BM 96573 is Sumerian literary text.

The First Millennium ones: K 162 is Ištar descent; K 41+ is a bilingual ballang; BM 47753 is SA.GIG 26; BM 92687 is the Babylonian Map of the World; BM 36388+ is an astronomical diary, and BM 34660+ is the Diadochi Chronicle. Again, as with the triangular holes, trapezoidal holes are not genre specific.

Importantly, trapezoidal holes could be left by a trapezoidal stylus, which was also depicted in art (Cammarosano 2014: 59, 81). If the trapezoidal holes above were made by a tip of the cuneiform stylus this would call for a stylus model with a trapezoidal profile. Additionally, some trapezoidal holes might have indeed originated by a reed segment used as a stylus, as on K 41+, BM 47753, and BM 96573.

Furthermore, BM 36388+ suggest that the conical end of the stylus was round in the thinner part and trapezoidal in the thicker part, see fig. 11 (equivalent of fig. 5).

Fig. 11

On the other hand, BM 34660+ suggests that the thicker part might be round and the trapezoidal thinner, see fig. 12.

Fig. 12

Theoretically even this thicker round part might have had a trapezoidal end, which might have been used to create cuneiform, fig. 13.

Fig. 13

4. Oval ‘Holes’

Let us first look at images of tablets in Assyrian and Babylonian hand, and then discuss them.

Assyrian hand

(1) A8; Heeßel 2012: no. 37 Middle Assyrian. There are large oval holes.

(2) VAT 10000 (KAV 1); Middle Assyrian. Oval holes appear beside round ones.

One might also add LKA 2 (BWL pl. 50), but this case is uncertain since it was not collated.

Babylonian hand

(3) BM 96573 (Fig. 8); Detailed description of the holes in Alster and Walker 1989: 10f.; Jeyes 2000: 371. Fincke 2014: 277 note 16. Old Babylonian. There are three holes at the bottom of the tablet, only the middle hole is trapezoidal, the others are oval.

(4) Tablet Carré Jeyes 2000: esp. 345, 371; Middle Babylonian. Gall bladder omens. Large oval holes at empty spaces all over the tablet.

(5) BM 48052 (Fig. 14); Ca. 11×7,7×1,5 cm. There are oval holes measuring ca. 3,5×2 cm. Liver omens. Late Babylonian.

Fig. 14

First, the oval holes on BM 96573 (fig. 8) seem different than the rest.

Interestingly enough, similar oval holes appear on tablets with omens from different periods A8, VAT 10000 (juridical omens), Tablet Carré and BM 48052. Here one might ask if such oval holes are not genre specific? The fill in some holes on BM 48052 suggests that the object that left those traces was hollow (fig. 14), like a reed straw for instance. We are not informed, however, about the other end of the object, which might be shaped like a trapezoid, fig. 15.

Fig. 15

On the other hand, a stylus’ profile like fig. 16-right might be used to create cuneiform as well. In addition, both ends might be used to make the oval holes as on BM 48052.

Fig. 16

5. Conclusion

The close observation on differently shaped holes on tablets suggest that in some cases round, triangular, trapezoidal or even oval holes might indeed have been created by one end of a triangular, trapezoidal or oval stylus. In addition, the one end of the stylus might have been used for writing cuneiform, and the other end of the stylus might have been used for making round triangular, trapezoidal, or oval holes. It is obvious that one had to contend with multiple local variants and shapes.


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Wiggermann, Frans A. M.
2008“A Babylonian Scholar in Assur”. In: R. J. van der Spek (ed.) Studies in Ancient Near Eastern World View and Society presented to Marten Stol on the occasion of his 65th birthday, 10 November 2005, and his retirement from the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (Bethesda, Md.):203-234.

* My gratitude goes to Christopher Walker who drew my attention to BM 34660, BM 36388, BM 40855, BM 42037, BM 48052, BM 96573 (not all tablets were discussed here); Enrique Jiménez (reference to Borger 1991 and TCL 6, 1); Klaus Wagensonner (reference to AO 8647 and K 162); and to Michele Cammarosano for criticism. Many thanks to Gene Trabich for proofreading. Special gratitude goes to Prof. Markus Hilgert and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Vorderasiatisches Museum for permission to published a closeup image of VAT 8803.
Thanks are due to Zsömbör Földi who informed me via K. Wagensonner that VAT 8803 has recently been discussed in Marzahn 2017. Marzahn’s reconstruction on p. 205 (Abb. 14) shows triangular profile of the tip used to pierce the firing holes, which resembles my reconstruction on fig. 6. Nevertheless, I consider that the end of the stylus used to pierce the triangular holes on VAT 8803 was round at its end as is obvious from the breaks on VAT 8803 (my fig. 1 top left). The round end is also visible at the multiple silicon mouldings pictured in Marzahn’s article.
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