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Roman Gadget Geeks – the ancient 'inkers'

Lately I was wandering around the Museum of Scotland when I stumbled across an amazing fragment of a Roman Wax Tablet (I think it was found at Vindolanda – a Roman fort near Hadrian's Wall, but can't confirm this for sure until I revisit the museum. Anyone know? I managed to get back yesterday and it seems the tablet comes from Newstead - a Roman fort in the Borders). This has got to be the ultimate antiquity equivalent of the PDA and the similarities between the ancient and the modern are striking. Both are around the same size and both require a stylus to 'ink' text onto the surface. It makes one wonder just how much of an influence these ancient tablets had on the first PDA designs.

Follow the jump to see a few more pics of the Roman tablets and a lttile commentary on how they were used

Of course the Romans utilised other media for writing such as papyrus, stone and marble but tRomanswithtablet1cbchese materials were usually reserved for more 'grande' communiqués (I've no idea why I'm going all French talking about the Romans). The wax tablet (also called a tabulae) is a much more portable, 'on the fly' gadget and was used for the more day to day tasks such as shopping lists, military orders, army accounts and perhaps the odd game of noughts and crosses? Mosaics such as the one on the right, from the 1st Century BC, depicts contemporary wax tablet use while a mosaic recovered from Pompeii, from around the same date shows a woman using a multi-paged wax tablet (multi-page?? sheesh talk about conspicuous consumption…:o))

Pompeii_tabletOf course as resourceful and ingenious as the Romans were one should not think that the wax tablet was a Roman invention, far from it. Wax tablets have been around a lot longer than the Romans have. For instance a leaf of a wax tablet, recovered from a wreck at Uluburun in southern Turkey, can be dated back to around 1300BC which was long before the foundation of Rome (circa 748BC). However the wide reaching extent and influence of the Roman Empire must have helped the wax tablet's spread and popularity (thinking about it maybe Palm Inc. should take Rome as an example and slant their next marketing strategy towards imperial domination…only joking). Well whatever the reason the popularity of tabulae seemed to have lasted well into the Middle Ages when, despite the reasonably widespread use of parchment, wax tablets still enjoyed a respectable following. So why would that be? Well aside from the portability advantages I've already mentioned a tabulae could be cheaply and easily produced and made even more desirable, in a cost effective sense, due to its reformatable (is that a word?)  functionality i..e. a quick smooth over or melt of the wax and the tablet is good to go again

Being a huge fan of the Ancient and Mediaeval world (probably a good reason why I'm majoring in History and Archaeology :o) ) and seeing how simplistic and trouble free they appear I get a tingly feeling when it comes to wax tablets and would love to add one of these timeless and reliable 'gadgets' to my paperless arsenal as a back-up for my temperamental power hogging PDA. My stubbornness not to use paper in any form prevents me from carrying even a simple little paper notebook leaving me at the full mercy of the Gadget Gods. However this completely paperfree device seems ideal. Let's face it the thing isn't going to crash, lock-up or run out of juice is it? Well ok so I'm not quite sure how easy it will be to 'reset' the super hardened wax in the inclement Scottish climate (no Meditaerranean sun to keep the wax malleable)  but the legionnaires seemed to manage fine just south of the border but if I really want to find out I guess there's only one route to go. Therefore a unique and 'not something you see everyday' task has been added to my 'to do' task list – build my own wax tablet. Thankfully to help me out I've found a number of useful websites that provide some good DIY wax tablet instructions so it looks like 'game on' for this exciting task. I'll keep you posted on my progress. Meanwhile if you're as 'mad as a Hatter' like me and fancy adding something a little 'out there' to your paperless toolbox then this link, this link (scroll down), this link and possibly this link may be of some use to you. I'm sure you can buy wax tablets ready crafted. I've found one or two places that do but I think part of the fun is in making your own.

Here are a few more pics from the Museum of Scotland's collection for inspiration (click to enlarge):




If you do end up making your own wax tablet or even use them already then I really would love to hear your story. Meantime if you want any more information on wax tablets then please follow the following links:


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Tabulae et stilus

Tablet PC and Stylus

... plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!


Have a look at the URL above for another Roman technological item, only in this case definitely a Roman design.

First class link that Ray. Shows the kind of thing that the hi-tech gadget geek was carting around in the Roman world. I wonder if he was the envy of his friends with a cutting edge portable abacus like this (well similar because obviously this is a replica)

I am going to Edible Book Festival in Portland, Maine tomorrow. see www.books2eat.something fmi. I will be entering an edible wax tablet, ie.chocolate on cracker version,entitled What's in Cleopatra's Pocket Book. wax tablet info might include, Cleo's to do list. Clean asp cage, buy kohl, pick up wig. Susan

Awesome. I love creative innovation Susan and it doesn't come much more innovative than this (and totally paperless :o)) How did your entry do? Have you any photos of the Cleo Tablet? Love to see it

Interesting article!
Where can I find more on this theme?

I received 'honorable mention' for 'What's in Cleopatra's Pocket Book' Sadly I cannot find an image it. The Edible Book Festival is coming up again.

I am currently working on a community art project, Banners Over Bath. See images of last year's entries at www.visitbath.com Susan

Nice to hear from you again. I'm sorry your entry didn't win last year but an 'honorable mention' has got to be a major achievement on it's own.

I love this 'Banners over Bath' project. This event must bring a flood of colour to the place. I was looking at last year's entries and I particularly love 'Hello Toast' :o)

well this is cool stuff since the ancient people discovered and using it

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