To the Fun Science Gallery contents



G. Carboni, July 2006
Translation edited by Karyn Loscocco, June 2008


Figure 1 - Home made cuneiform tablet. On top and right
you can see a scale that broke off while the tablet was
baked. The grey areas correspond to zones where the
material did not attain high enough temperatures while



The cuneiform writing
How to prepare tablets
How to prepare the stylus
How to write on the tablets
How to preserve the tablets
Other clay objects
The clay


One of the things children like is to mess around with is mud and I'll talk about mud in this article. Mud is a very common material especially in the alluvial areas of riverbanks. It was also very abundant in ancient Mesopotamia which, as the name suggests, was a region located between two rivers. This material was used by the ancient inhabitants of that land for writing. This article describes how to make clay tablets and how to carve them more or less like the ancient people of the Mesopotamia did. It is a nice experiment which will allow you to literally touch with your hands a writing technique used more than 5000 years ago.


Sumerians lived in Mesopotamia, a land crossed by two rivers and rich in marshes and mud. They found it handy to use clay tablets (a fine grain mud) for writing. In the beginning, to indicate an object the Sumerians used to draw the picture (pictograms). They also used symbols to indicate farm agricultural produces or farmyard animals. For example, they used a cross inside a circle (ideogram) to mean a sheep.

If it was comparatively easy to symbolize agricultural products with a drawing or simple symbol, it was more difficult to write the name of a person. To solve this problem, somebody thought of using short words, mono or bi-syllabic, and to unite them in the same way we are doing today with the rebus. Around 3000 BC, other signs were introduced which were not used to mean an object, but rather a name for the object (phonograms). For example, Sumerians named the head "lu" and the mouth "ka". By reading one after the other as phonograms (the drawing of the head and that of the mouth) it was possible to obtain the modern name of "Luka" ("Luke"). With this important innovation, it was possible to write the name of persons who were involved in transactions, rather than just the goods only. People were also allowed to write abstract words. Several centuries passed before somebody had the idea to use writing for purposed beyond accounting. One of the oldest funerary Sumerian scripts dates from 2700/2600 BC and it indicates the name and the title of the dead person. In 2400 BC, a Sumerian sovereign described his own exploits in a long text. In 2000 BC, writing was used for legal purposes, for literature, and school texts, etc. The Sumerian writing was a mixed system which used conventional symbols, some of which depicted objects and other which stood for sounds.

The cuneiform writing

The term cuneiform writing comes from the fact it is composed of signs that look like small wedges, in Latin: cuneus. Yet, in the beginning cuneiform writing was not at all composed of wedges and on the clay tablets scribes engraved the shape of the objects to be annotated and the possible numerical signs. Unfortunately, when scribes were carving clay with a pointed tip they caused chips and detachment of clay fragments. This required continual cleaning of the drawings while they were carved on the tablets. To avoid this mishap, they began to impress straight marks using a stylus.

As a consequence, the drawings were altered. In fact, curves were replaced with straight marks and the figures lost their realism. During the centuries, the pictograms used by the Mesopotamians underwent a process of schematization. In the end, the figures were unrecognizable. They became abstract symbols, and their meaning was no longer tied to the original picture (figure 2).

To summarize, writing which was created for administrative purposes, was enriched by using symbols with phonetic value. This development allowed the writing of words that were not possible to represent with a picture, such as the personal names and abstract concepts. This writing was further enhanced by figures that depicted natural objects, actions, and the like. The writing system contained both pictograms and phonograms, as well as numeric signs.



- a pat of clay;
- a sheet of plastic to avoid soiling the table;
- a wooden or plastic roll. You can also use a big enough felt-tip;
- a wooden stylus, to be made;
- Some pictures of cuneiform scripts.

   How to prepare tablets

Figure 3 - From a pat of clay, cut a slice of it.

Figure 4 - Knead the clay.

Figure 5 - With a roll, obtain
a table 6-8 mm thick.


I'm imagining that this experiment is performed in a school. The teacher has to distribute a plastic sheet and a slice of clay to each pupil. The slice would be already ready as it is, but as the children like playing with mud, the teacher can allow them to knead the clay as if it were dough to make bread and to obtain in the end a sort of cookie shape. Then, by using the roll, the pupils have to obtain a tablet with a more or less rectangular shape about 6 mm thick (figure 5). While doing this, you should avoid tearing the tablet. Each pupil should engrave their name on the lower side of the tablet.

How to prepare and use stylus

The stylus can be obtained from a stick with circular section shown in figure 6. The end of the stick has to be worked into a pointed "V" shape with an angle of 60-90°.

Figure 6 - Stylus to engrave the cuneiform
signs. Notice the shape of its tip.

Figure 7 - To make a wedge, keep the stylus
almost parallel to the tablet and press gently.

Figure 8 - By keeping the tip in the same position,
raise the back end of the stylus as shown. In the
square on the side, you can see the engraved wedge.

How to write the tablets

You must write on the tablets when they are fresh. Do not try to write on the tablets the day after you prepared them because they will dry and it will be impossible to do it. As you can notice, usually the signs have the shape of a wedge or a nail, with a stem and a head. Copy some words from figures 1 and 2 among those which date from 2400 and 700 years BC or open a suitable website from the bibliography.

To carve a wedge, you have to make two movements. At the beginning, keep the stylus almost parallel to the tablet and press gently (figure 7), then rotate the back end of the stylus upward as shown in the figure 8. In the square on the side, you can see the engraved wedge.

How to preserve the tablets

Many tablets were simply Sun dried, while other were kiln fired, then they were placed in archives. Now and then, because of a war or accidental reasons, the archives caught fire and the raw tablets were baked. In this way, the clay was transformed into a ceramic material: earthenware, inalterable by the water. For us, those fires have been providential because it is thanks to them that so many tablets were practically intact after the thousands of years since they were written. Seldom have the sun dried tablets arrived to us in good condition.

You too can content yourself with simply sun drying the tablets. However, if you want, you can bake them using a fireplace. To do this, the tablets have to be completely dry because if there is some moisture inside them, the high temperatures will cause it to evaporate and the tablets can explode in some positions. The baking temperature should be of 800 °C at least. You can obtain this temperature in the hottest place of the embers of the fireplace. Before placing the tablets in that position, leave them in the borders of the fireplace where they can warm themselves and lose their remaining moisture. You must leave the tablets at least a quarter of an hour inside the embers, and then you can remove them with the tongs of the fireplace. The tablet will be bright and you will feel having made something of magic. Put it on the ash and let it cool. If it has been well baked, its colour will be plain brick red; otherwise the places where the temperature was insufficient will have grey spots.

Other clay objects

As moist clay is a plastic material, it is possible to manufacture many other objects and not only tablets. For example, you can made little dolls, angels, statues for crèches, toy soldiers, animals, ancient oil lamps, lockets, dinner services and cups for dolls, etc. In the same way you bake the tablets; you can bake these other clay objects you made. When it is cooked, the clay changes into terracotta, a hard ceramic material. It is water-resistant and stress-resistant, but it is fragile.

The clay

Clay is one of the products of the erosion of the earth’s crust. In winter, the water which creeps into the fissures of the rocks freezes, but by freezing the ice dilates and breaks them. Many of these fragments gather themselves inside quick streams, where they are dragged toward valleys by strong currents. During this journey, rocks knock each other and break into smaller and smaller pieces. As the stream goes down toward the plain, the slope of its bed reduces and the speed of the water slows down. So the biggest fragments stop first, while the finest ones deposit slowly. When the stream arrives in the plain, mainly sands, silt and some clay are deposited. When it reaches the sea mainly silt and clay are deposited. In the plains, especially, it is possible to find deposits of clay mixed with silt and sand in the sides of the rivers. On the sea floor, you can find important deposits of fine sands, silt and clay. In these deposits, the finest particles are located at the highest distance from the river mouths.

As you may know, the earth’s crust is not motionless, but it undergoes continuous movements. We do not notice these motions because they occur very slowly, over millions of years. The collision of the continental plates causes ocean floors to rupture and to carry them as far as hundreds or thousands of meters of altitude. Italy is an example of this process because it started to emerge from the sea about 170 million years ago and it continues even today. From this, you can understand how it is possible not only to find clay of recent formation near the rivers, but also clay of "geological" formation in ancient grounds of plains, hills and even mountains, when these originated by the lifting of sea floors.

While walking on a field after a heavy rain, it is easy to soil your shoes with mud. Mud is a heterogeneous material mainly formed by clay, silt and little amounts of fine sand. Sometimes, there are also thick sand and gravel. All these components come from the erosion of the earth’s crust and they differentiate essentially by their size. Clay is made up of particles smaller than 0.002 mm, silt of particles comprised between clay and sand. The fine sand is made up of particles comprised between 0.06 and 0.2 mm, thick sand of particles comprised between 0.2 and 2 mm.

In order that the mud is suitable for writing it has to be made up of fine particles such as clay and silt, while sand and gravel would greatly worsen its properties. The moist clay is a plastic material, it is malleable and compact. With fine sand, clay can be easily shattered. Thick sand and gravel would hinder a stylus in drawing marks or lines. So, the most suitable material from which to make cuneiform tablets is the richer clay, free of sand and gravel. Due to the prevalence of the finest components in the material used to write, people do not speak of mud tablets, but of clay tablets.

The amount of water present in the clay determines its mechanical properties. Dry clay is a hard and compact material like a stone. By absorbing water, clay becomes always more malleable and after a while it is possible to easily work it with the hands and it does not stick to the fingers. This consistency is what helps sculptors. If you allow the clay to absorb other water, it will become a sticky material which will stick more and more to the hands. After a while, the clay will turn into a sheer fluid. When it rains a lot, clay can absorb so much water it becomes a liquid. If it is on a steep hill slope, it can come down to the valley as a landslide. In order to make tablets, you must obtain clay like the one used by sculptors.

Peasants know well how difficult it is working with clay soil. They try to better the workability of it by enriching it with sand, gravel, peat and manure. They never work the ground as soon it has stopped raining; instead they wait for the moisture to reach the lower soil, in order to make it more crumbly.

In order to make cuneiform tablets, you can even use some clay collected near a river, but you have to check it is of good quality. As I said, it is also possible to find clay of high quality in areas which, millions of years ago, were sea floors. However, if you prefer not soiling your shoes and you want to be sure to obtain a fine and homogeneous material, go into an art shop and buy a pat of clay for sculptors. It is cheap but check they have the suitable level of moisture

Finally, remember that clay had a very important role in the history of mankind. According the religious traditions, the first man was created from some clay. This material has then been used to manufacture amphorae and pots, to produce bricks with which to build houses, buildings and temples and it was used to write. Clay was the first ceramic used by people. Today, ceramic materials have a big importance, even in advanced sectors like medicine (prosthesis), electronics (insulators, semiconductors and superconductors), mechanics (high temperature and wear components), war and aerospace industry (refractory tiles which cover the space shuttles).


Clay is a fantastic material. It can be used to make a lot of things besides the cuneiform tablets such as little sculptures, little dishes and cups, oil lamps like those which were used by the ancient people. Amuse yourself by manufacturing clay objects. If it is possible, paint them with terracotta colors and cook them in a fireplace. You will obtain better results by cooking them in a suitable kiln. To this aim, apply to a colors and frames shop.


1 - Cuneiform symbols
2 -  Archaeology Activities for Kids

Internet keywords:
clay tablets, cuneiform writing.



Send your opinion on the article

To the FSG Contents  To the top of the article  Download the article