Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources

Writing Instruments

Egyptian reed pen

It was made from a piece of full reed from a marsh, 1-1.5 mm in diameter, which was frayed at one end by chewing on it in order to create a sort of brush tip, indispensable since Egyptian writing was more painted than carved. The signs left by the reed pen were therefore wide and with indefinite edges.

Greek & Latin reed pen

Made from a narrow but hollow reed, approximately 0.5 mm in diameter, which was not chewed on but rather cut diagonally and sliced at the tip. It provided a sharp, clear, subtle and uniform line

Other reed pens and quills

Those in metal were rare (there are a few bronze examples from the Roman period), while in the Byzantine era (4th century), the quill was introduced. It had a hollow shaft, and was diagonally cut and sliced at the point. At first it was used alongside the reed pen, then in the Middle Ages the quill pen began to be preferred, and it remained in use until well into the 19th century.

Scribe's tablet

This was a hollowed tablet with a reed pen and a roll of fibers (the “eraser” for canceling mistakes), and a couple of indentations for the cakes of black and red ink.

Canceling mistakes

On papyrus, ostraca and wood it was enough to wet the plant ink: the gum arabic dissolves in water, the ink becomes pale and then disappears. Small sponges, rags, rolls of wet plant fibers or simply a finger dampened with saliva were used for this.

On parchment, canceling was more difficult, since metal-based ink penetrates and so wetting the surface is not enough. In general the written text was scraped off with a blade, which abraded the support material (from which comes “palimpsest” pálin psÄ“stós ‘scrape again’). Chalk was then used to cover the erasure well.

With wax tablets the situation was different: if a stylus (a small metal, ivory or bone stick) was used to incise, then the non-pointed end of the same was used to cancel. This was usually in the form of a small spatula or sphere which when rubbed across the wax, filled in the carved lines.

Online resources

last update: 2021-11-22 13:12:48