Stylin’ with the stylus

You hold it like a pencil.

The Sumerians didn’t have pencils to write with. Instead, they took a dry reed, stiff as a stick, and cut the end off at a 90° angle. Using a knife or by sanding it, they made the end of the reed rectangular. The corners needed to be sharp! They used the corners and the edges of the stylus to press triangles and lines into a soft clay tablet. This style of writing is called cuneiform (koo-NAY-i-form), from Latin words that mean triangle (cune-) and shape (form). The writing tool is called a stylus (STY-loos), plural styli (STY-lee).

By the way, up until I researched this post I thought that the reed’s cross-section was triangular. Can you see how red my face is? Research, gang. You’re never too old to learn!

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

2 responses to “Stylin’ with the stylus

  1. Fascinating, John! Carving the reed in that way makes sense for repetitive impressions in soft clay tablets. I wonder if reeds were easier to carve than feather quills?

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a good question. I think you can cut and split a goose quill with a sharp knife. The Sumerians needed something sturdy to press into clay. The link I provided says bamboo works well for cuneiform styli because it’s so hard—but it’s more difficult/time consuming to shape (they recommend a chopstick). We’ll have to see what the Egyptians used to put ink on papyrus. Stay tuned!

      Liked by 1 person

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