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Hattusa (Boğazköy), die Hauptstadt des Hethiterreiches; Blick auf Tempel I

Aktuelle Forschung und Publikationen: The Cuneiform On Wax Project

Experimental wax boards, manufactured at the Würzburg University. Photo © F. Maruhn.
Reade_Assyrian sculpure_33, Fig_12-02: Depictions of scribes writing cuneiform on waxed boards, found in Neo-Assyrian reliefs. When the scribes face left, the ‘inner’ side of the stylus is visible, showing a groove; otherwise the ‘outer’ side is displayed, showing a horizontal band in the middle. BM 124955, © Trustees of the British Museum, after J. Reade, Assyrian Scultpure, 1983, 33; Burrell Collection, Glasgow, 28.33, after Barnett et al., Sculptures from the Southwest Palace of Sennacherib at Nineveh, London 1998, 84 Pl. 222.


Cuneiform script, used in the Ancient Near East over more than three millennia, represents one of the world’s earliest writing systems. With hundreds of thousands of recovered manuscripts, cuneiform texts constitute the widest pre-classical written corpus, a heritage of invaluable importance to understand the languages and civilizations of the Ancient Near East as well as the origins of urban culture. Cuneiform is characterized by wedge-shaped marks, typically obtained by impressing a stylus on the moist clay. Besides clay, cuneiform script was also used on stone, metal, and wax. The specific physical properties and challenges posed by the various mediums necessarily determined differences in the writing techniques used on them, as well as in the writing tools. Given the almost total absence of archaeological finds securely identifiable as styli, cuneiform writing techniques are best investigated by combining the evaluation of textual and iconographic sources with the analysis of wedge impressions. As far as the latter point is concerned, wax bears the disadvantage of being extremely perishable as compared to clay, stone, and metal, a fact which tends to obscure the place waxed boards had vis-à-vis other mediums within the cuneiform world.

Detail of the wax layer of one ivory writing board from Nimrud, still preserving a part of the astronomical omen series Enuma Anu Enlil inscribed in cuneiform script. BM 131952, © Trustees of the British Museum.
One of the writing boards from Nimrud (ivory, each leaf 34 × 16 cm). BM 131952, © Trustees of the British Museum.


Waxed boards were extensively used in the Ancient Near East, both for ephemeral records and for composition which were to be stored in libraries and erudite collections. Attested in textual sources from the end of the 3rd millennium BC onwards, writing boards are archaeologically documented for the 2nd and 1st millennium BC (examples are known from the Ulu Burun shipwreck, Aššur, and Nimrud). The boards were made of wood or ivory, two or more leaves being hinged together to form diptychs, triptychs, or polyptychs. The sunken portion of each leaf accomodated a layer of beeswax mixed with other substances, primarily yellow ochre (Akkadian kalû), which made the paste apt to be written on and gave it a yellowish colour.

On wax, both cuneiform and linear scripts like aramaic or hieroglyhps could be used. The existence of waxed boards inscribed in Luwian hieroglyphs in Hittite Anatolia is virtually assured by the discovery, at Boğazköy/Hattuša, of bronze styli with pointed tip and a spatula at the back end; Anatolian hieroglyphs continued to be used on waxed boards in Iron Age Syria. On the other hand, two of the Neo-Assyrian writing boards from Nimrud still preserve a portion of the wax layer inscribed with cuneiform signs. According to analyses performed in the 1950s in the British Museum laboratories, the wax layer of the Nimrud writing boards consists of beeswax compounded with ca. 25% sulphide of arsenic (orpiment). The use of orpiment, a highly toxic substance, was apparently aimed at giving this luxurious showpiece the appearance of gold.
New evidence suggests that cuneiform styli used for waxed boards were immersed in a special fat, probably serving as release agent to prevent the wax paste bonding to the stylus: in a letter to the Assyrian king Aššurbanipal, Babylonian scholars refer to “[ ... ] syrup, ghee and pressed (oil) for the kettle of their styli, to soak (them into it)” ([ ... diš]pu(làl) ḫimētu(ì ù ḫal-ṣa ana ruqqi(šen) qan(gi)-ṭup-pí-šú-nu ana ṣe-pu-ú: BM 2885 obv.  17, cf. G. Frame – A. R. George, Iraq 67, 274f.). Furthermore, styli connected with writing boards, as depicted on seals and reliefs, display two peculiarities as compared to those used for clay tablets: scribes with board-books are regularly shown holding the stylus with index and middle fingers extended; moreover, their styli show a groove on one side. Which purpose did the groove serve? The issue has not been investigated in detail yet, and several options are open, the most intriguing one being the view that the groove might allow to paint the wedges while impressing them.


Based at the Würzburg University, the “Cuneiform On Wax” project aims to investigate the writing technique(s) used to write cuneiform on wax through a interdisciplinary experimental approach. For this purpose, it brings together the perspectives of philology (Department of Ancient Cultures, Ancient Near Eastern Studies), chemistry (Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy, Technical Didactics), and biology (HOneyBee Online Studies), also availing itself of advice, collaboration and support from external scholars and institutions. Among its goals there are the reconstruction of waxed boards and writing implements, the experimentation of related writing techniques, and a critical reassessment of the role, diffusion, and terminology of beeswax and waxed boards in the Ancient Near East, with a special focus on the chemical composition of the wax paste and on matters of writing technology, manufacturing, and raw material supply.

Project partners:
Dr. Michele Cammarosano (JMU Würzburg / Marburg University):
Prof. Dr. Jürgen Tautz (JMU Würzburg):
AORin Katja Weirauch (JMU Würzburg):

Feline Maruhn (JMU Würzburg)

Cooperation & support:
Prof. Dr. Ekkehard Geidel (JMU Würzburg)
Gert Jendritzki (Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin)
Prof. Dr. Joachim Marzahn (Berlin)
Prof. Dr. Astrid Nunn (JMU Würzburg)
Dr. Heinrich Piening (Bayerische Schlösserverwaltung)
Prof. Dr. Daniel Schwemer (JMU Würzburg)
Miron Sevastre (JMU Würzburg)
Dr. Jonathan Taylor (British Museum, London)