This Pompeiian lady holds the putative precursor to the bound book — a polyptych of wooden-framed wax tablets fastened together as a unit — while her more conservative partner strokes his beard with a papyrus scroll, the principal means of written communication for 2,000 years prior. Obviously an intellectual couple.

Wikipedia shows a modern reconstruction of a wax tablet: hollow out a ⅛” thick board, leaving a protective rim around the edge and fill the depression with wax so that it can be impressed with a stylus. When the message has been read it can be smoothed over, and the tablet reused. In the picture the woman is warming the end of the stylus in her mouth to heat it up and make writing in the wax easier.

If you pressed too hard you’d scratch the bottom of the case, and we’ve found lots of information about everyday life in Roman Britain from such survivals found in excavations. They are of course hard to interpret because the scratches come from many different writings. This example comes from The Museum of London. You can just make out the scratches of letters in the wood. Finds have been made of simple wooden units which were written on in ink, and this appears to have been a technique used for “postal” communications. The thin slices of wood would be folded over and tied together for delivery. Homer even refers in Book 6 of The Iliad to what is probably such a thing: “Many, of fatal import, all graved on a tablet infolded”. Pope puts it more elegantly if less specifically: “To Lycia the devoted youth he sent,/ With tablets seal’d, that told his dire intent.”

The Romans appear to have referred to these memo pads pretty straightforwardly as “waxes”, cerae, though an alternative term tabulae exists; but it appears to be a bit more general referring to any tablet on which one could write in any way (stone, metal, clay, wood), narrowed down as tabulae ceratae when used specifically for “waxes”. If there were multiple “leaves” bound (tied) together, the inner “pages” might be hollowed out on both sides. “Waxes” were not invented by the Romans: they took them over from Greece where the may be seen on vases from the fifth and fourth centuries BC. Inevitably this happy chappy looks to us like he’s working on his MacBook.

Douris cup, c.480BC. Berlin, Antikenmuseen

No wonder the guy in front of him looks a bit startled. But he is of course writing on a (rather large) triptych wax tablet set.

Nor did the Greeks invent them: they got them from earlier middle eastern cultures. The oldest surviving example of a wax writing tablet comes from fourteenth century BC Turkey.

Just because something new comes along doesn’t of course mean that any piece of technology instantly disappears.  People like to use tools they are familiar with, and if they work well there’s really no reason to innovate just for the sake of innovating. The everyday use of wax writing tablets continued for centuries after the invention of paper: they were apparently still being used in the Rouen fish market in the 1860s.