Playing with (real) clay

“Clay play day” was a pretty regular feature of my time as a researcher in Cambridge – we’d get some modelling clay and try making and writing tablets in various ancient writing systems, or run activities for school students and families to do the same. As part of my new research project in Athens, I’m aiming to do a more systematic version of this, working in the Fitch Laboratory with researchers who are experienced in experimental work with ceramics, to understand more about how the Linear B tablets were made. The Fitch provided samples of a few clays of different levels of fineness/coarseness for me to try out, so the first stage was to prepare them to work with. Recipe: break up dry clay with a pestle and mortar, put in beaker, add water, stir. Wait for several days, realise you’ve put far too much water in, pour a lot of it out, wait several more days. After that, I finally had four different clays ready to play with.

Woman standing at a table in a laboratory with large sacks of dry clay on it, grinding clay with a pestle and mortar

Preparing my clay, stage 1: grinding it up. Photo: Evangelia Kiriatzi

Four beakers sitting on a tray, containing varying amounts of brown liquid

Preparing my clay, stage 2: clay soup

At this early stage of the project, the main thing I needed to do was to get more familiar with working with clay, as well as beginning to try out a couple of different ways of making tablets, both as practice for real experiments later on and to see what the results looked like. By far the easiest way to make a tablet is just to roll a lump of clay into a sausage and then squash it with the palms of your hands on a flat surface. Flattening the clay like this can leave palmprints on the back – something that has been used to identify groups of tablets made by the same person. The edges can then be neatened as much or as little as you like, and the side that was flattened by being pressed against the surface can be written on. It’s possible to do this straight away, but it’s better to wait a while until the clay has dried a bit, otherwise the tablet is easily squashed and drawing the stylus through throws up a lot of loose clay around the edges of the strokes – as you can see from this picture of one tablet I wrote on soon after making it. It’s still possible to tell on real tablets from traces like this approximately how wet or dry the clay was when they were written on.

Long thin clay tablet with Linear B signs incised on the flat top surface. Loose clay can be seen around the edges of the strokes which form the signs.

Clay tablet with Linear B text listing a group of women and children who make flour

This method was perfectly easy to do with all four different clays, regardless of how fine or coarse they were, although the coarsest one wasn’t suitable for writing because the stylus kept running into the inclusions (little bits of harder rock in the clay). Another method that’s often referred to, though, is rolling out a flat sheet of clay and folding it up to make a tablet of a similar shape to the one above: it’s possible to see that this is the way at least some tablets were made because the join is visible on the back, and/or the folds can be seen on the edges. This method is more difficult than the simpler ‘roll up and squash’ one: at least with the clays I was working with, it depended much more on the consistency and moisture of the clay – using the coarser clays, or clay that was slightly drier, just meant the whole surface cracked when folding it up. As you can also see from the pictures below, getting a neat-looking tablet took a bit more effort too, at least for this novice tablet-maker. I made this tablet by this method without doing anything to neaten up the edges or smooth over the joins, and frankly it’s a bit of a mess – although the overall shape isn’t bad: Linear B tablets quite often taper at one or both ends, something that naturally happens when you roll out a roundish lump of clay and then fold it up (though you can easily produce this tapering shape just by squashing a clay sausage more at the ends than in the middle, too).

Edge of clay tablet showing folded layers
Back of long thin clay tablet with slightly tapering edges, showing irregular line where folded clay has been joined

Now that I’ve done some initial playing with clay, the next stages of this part of my project will be to examine the actual tablets in the National Archaeological Museum, to see what traces of their manufacture – such as joins or layers from rolling the clay up, or places where the clay has been neatened or smoothed out – can actually be seen. That will let me then do some more systematic ‘playing’ with clay to recreate methods of making tablets, to try and understand better the range of methods that were actually in use and the tablet-makers’ choices in using these different methods.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 885977.

#clayplayday #experimentalarchaeology #research #FitchLaboratory #LinearB #claytablets #MarieSklodowskaCurieFellowship #BritishSchoolatAthens

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