Clay tablets are a writing medium and were historically used in the Ancient Near East especially for writing cuneiform. They were used throughout the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age. On these tablets writing evolved. The inscriptions were imprinted in the wet clay with a stylus, when written on they were dried and would harden but still remained quite fragile. Many tablets which have been found in archaeological sites have been preserved when the buildings in which the tablets were stored were burnt down, as this would provide the heat to fire the tablets making them much stronger. However, once fired they could not be reused as unfired tablets were soaked in water to soften them so they could be reused.
A clay tablet can be made very easily, all you will need is clay, a twig, and a knife.
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Step 1: Finding Some Clay.
Clay can be found in many places and most soil contains some clay. However, most soil contains a small amount of clay and so it is very hard and time consuming to extract clay from it. It will also require a large amount of soil to extract a small amount of clay.
The easiest way to extract clay is to find relatively pure clay which then does not need much refining, many Assyrian tablets show impurities which indicate that the clay used was not refined. Clay can be found in many places and is especially easy to find on river banks or small cliffs as it is exposed and not covered by topsoil.
I found my clay on a beach with a cliff. This made accessing the clay very easy, however this meant that the clay was covered in sand which made it less pure. I tried to reduce the amount of sand touching the clay my scraping away the sand and top layer of clay. I then dug up a small amount of clay.
The clay was reasonably pure but did contain some sand which would affect the clay's plasticity. This clay would work for a tablet, and many historical tables contained many impurities, but I wanted to refine the clay so it would be easier to work and would give the finished tablet a nicer look.
Step 2: Refining Your Clay
There are a few different ways to refine clay. I chose a simple way which was not very hard to do. This involved using water to separate the heavier sand from the clay.
To do this you will need a large container, preferably transparent. Then it is a simple matter of adding water to the clay until it forms a liquid. it is important to fully break up the clay and stir it a lot to ensure all clay is in suspension. I used an old glass bell jar to mix the clay and water together. Then once totally mixed you will have to leave the mixture for a while. As it is left it will settle and the sand should form a layer at the bottom with clay above it. This is because the sand is heavier and so will fall out of suspension before the clay does. If there is any organic impurities they should float to the surface where they can be removed, However my clay had almost no organic impurities.
Once settled I could see that my clay had a significant percentage of sand in. I then left it so more of the clay would separate from the water which I then decanted off. This waiting also let all the sand settle to the bottom, leaving me with a layer of sand and silt with a clay slurry above it. I then decanted off the clay slurry leaving the sand and silt behind with a small amount of clay left in it, as I wanted to be sure there was no sand left in the clay. This was also good as it left me with a sand, which due to the clay left in it, which adhered to it self quite well and so would work well for sand casting.
With the clay slurry separated from the sand I then left it for longer to let it separate more from the water, which i then decanted off. I did this each day until the amount off water which had risen above the clay was very small and impossible to easily decant off. Then I got a very fine cloth and scoped the clay into the cloth and formed it into a rough ball and tied the top with string and then suspended it and left so that the water could be strained out of the clay. I left this for a few days until the clay was a very thick goo in consistency. I then transferred the clay to a tray and set it outside in the sun to dry, if you have no sun you could leave it indoors to dry and speed up the drying by using a fan to blow air over it, I however, had no suitable inside space to do this and so had to wait until a sunny day to leave it outside. Once the clay reached a reasonable consistency I stopped drying it and transferred it to an airtight container to store it.
Step 3: Forming the Tablet
Before forming the tablet it is a good idea to thoroughly knead the clay to ensure it is as a constant consistency as the edges are likely to be slightly harder as they will have dried more than the centre. To form the tablet take the clay, once it has reached a workable consistency, and form it into a rough rectangle. Throughout history these would be different sizes depending on what the tablet was used for. I decided to make a relatively small table which would fit in the palm of my hand. So I formed a sheet about 5mm thick and then inscribed my inscription and then cut around it to give a small rectangle about 45mm by 40mm.
Once formed you will want to leave the tablet to dry a bit so it is easier to work with the stylus. Ideally you want to leave it until it reaches leather hard, at which point it no longer feels soft to the touch but can be reasonably easily deformed.
Step 4: Make a Stylus
To make the stylus you will need to find a small piece of wood, and you will also need a knife. I am using a small twig, ideally you want green wood as it is softer and easier to carve.
The first thing you will need to do to the twig is to remove the bark and then start to shape the twig and smooth any knots or bumps, this is not strictly necessary but will make holding the stylus more comfortable. Once smoothed make a clean end to the twig so the end is perpendicular to the shaft. Then square off the end and make sure the end is clean and not jagged. Then imagining the end is a square cut from one corner to the other to leave a triangular cross section.
Step 5: What Is Cuneiform?
Cuneiform is the name given to a group of related writting systems. It is called cuneiform due to the wedge shapes which are used to write it. The name comes from the Latin "cuneus" (wedge) and "forma" (shape), and came into English via the old Old French cunéiforme. It started of as a pictographic system where each object had its own symbol, these cuneiform symbols are simplifications of earlier pictographs, as the simplifed wedge based shapes are easier to make in clay.
It emerged in Sumer, an ancient city in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), in the late 4th millennium B.C.E. After a while it was simplified into a combination of logophonetic, consonantal alphabetic and syllabic signs. This made it easier to learn as there were less signs. The original Sumerian script was adapted for the writing of the Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hittite, Luwian, Hattic,Hurrian, and Urartian languages, and it was later developed into the Ugaritic and Old Persian alphabets. It was then replaced by the simpler Phonecian writing system which was the first true alphabet. This then evolved into early Greek alphabets and Aramaic alphabets. From these most other alphabets developed such as the Latin alphabet, which also evolved into most northern European alphabets such as Futharc.
For this clay tablet I choose to use Old Persian as it is mainly phonographic and because I had found some inscriptions which I could copy and slightly edit. It does however have a few logograms for important commonly used words such as King and God. This is useful as the word for king is rather long so it is much easier just to use the logogram.
Step 6: Inscribing
First I had to come up with my inscription and as I was feeling slightly megalomaniac I though something praising me would be good. I had a look and found an inscription which read “I Darius, the great king.” so I though I would say that I was the great king. This inscription showed me how to write "the great king" I then looked and found an inscription saying “by the greatness of Ahuramazd I am king.” This showed me how to write "I am" so I combined these two inscriptions and worked out what I would have to write, however, the phrase "great king" used the full word for king and as my tablet was rather small I replaced this with the logogram for king.
I then wrote out what a was going to inscribe on a bit of paper and then using the stylus inscribed it onto the clay. It is quite hard to describe how you use the stylus and you will most probably have to write some tests first. To make the shapes you press the sharp edge of the stylus into the clay, the angle at which you do so changes the length of the wedge you will make. It takes a while to get used to doing this, but after a while you do get the hang of it.
Once I had written it I then cut around the inscription and discarded the other clay. I then left it to harden slowly at room temperature, as the clay dries it will slightly lighten in colour. If you want to speed it up you could leave it in the sun, but as my garden gets very little sun I did not. Once it has dried you can fire the clay if you want to make it stronger, to do this you must heat the clay to around 900C. For much of the time in history the tablets would not have been fired as if they had just been dried they could be moistened and reshaped. Most of the fired tablets we find are due to buildings housing the tablets being burnt down.
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