Young Woman with a Stylus

Wax Tablets Roman Style

Wax Tablets….. the Roman Way!

What was your favourite excuse for not handing in your homework? Did the dog ever eat it?  Perhaps your kids have come up with some creative reasons as to why assignments were overdue! I seem to recall ‘the wind blew it away’ or ‘a glass of juice spilled on it’.  We have all heard a few good ones but in ancient Rome,  students had an even better excuse! Their homework had melted by the sun! (Sometimes assisted by holding their wax tablets close to their body).  Now that’s a good one!

Wax tablets and stylus was the means of writing at that time. Paper did not become readily and cheaply available in Europe until the Middle Ages. So, it was necessary to have an effective means for keeping lists, general correspondence and legal documents.  The wax tablet was used as the everyday notebook for thousands of years, although there is increasing evidence that ink was used on thin sheets of wood also.  A number of these have been found at Vindolanda, a Roman Army museum in London, and in a new excavation in London’s Walbrook. In the Walbrook trove were nearly 400 rare wooden writing tablets, some of which still displayed legible letters, legal agreements, and financial documents. Another site yielded shopping lists, party invitations, and a contract for the sale of a slave girl.  All important administrative issues which needed to be recorded. (Incidentally, the extraordinary preservation of these is owed to a forgotten little stream called the Walbrook, which flowed through the heart of Roman Londinium on its way to the Thames. Its marshy banks and waterlogged soils preserved almost anything that fell into them!)

The Wax Tablet

The wax tablet, consisted of two or more wooden boards which were tied together to resemble a book. Each board had a carved recess, which was filled with melted pigmented wax to form a smooth surface. When the tablet was closed the wax surfaces were protected by the wooden cover.

Romans used a “pen” — a double-ended stylus to etch letters onto the wax surface.  One end was a point while the other was flattened and used to scrub out any errors, just like having an eraser on the end of your pencil. The stylus was made from a variety of materials such as wood, metal or bone. And lucky us! The Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology has an iron stylus, excavated in York, on display as part of the Roman collection. This stylus dates from the 1st – 4th century AD and can be viewed in Display Case #7B along with Roman jewellery, bowls and footwear.

Working on a Wax TabletIn recent years, archaeologists have recovered over 400 wax tablets from the Bloomberg building site in London. These documents are 2000 years old. The wooden cases still retained scratch marks which experts using photography and code breaking techniques were able to read and translate.  From these faint scratch marks the names, thoughts, business and legal transactions of these early Roman Britons have been revealed.

So the next time one of your children come up with a creative reason for not having homework finished, think of the Roman children – life hasn’t changed so much in some ways!  And now that you know about the true origins of the modern day digital tablet and stylus, perhaps you and your kids would like to experience what it was like to write on a wax tablet!  You can, at the Abbey Museum!

Join us on September 25-29th at Kids Dig It! Roman Family Fun Week at the Abbey Museum and make your own wax tablet to take home!  There’s an array of other different authentic Roman activities.  Don’t miss out. Book your tickets here: