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Egyptian Schoolboy’s 1,800-Year-Old Lesson to Go on Display

The British Library took the exercise out of storage as part of an upcoming exhibition on the history of writing

(Copyright British Library Board)
smithsonian.com

There’s something about that pad of lined newsprint with dashes down the center used by children to learn their letters that sends adults into a nostalgic revelry. Putting in the hours getting capital “T” straight and tall and lowercase “E” squat and round is a rite of passage, even in the age of keyboards. But practicing letters isn't just a modern experience. Soon, the British Library will display an 1,800-year-old Egyptian wax tablet for a new exhibition on the history of writing that will look familiar to anyone whose had to learn their ABCs.

Mindy Weisberger at LiveScience reports the tablet, about size of a modern-day Kindle, was acquired by the library in 1892, but the public hasn’t seen it on display since the 1970s. The tablet has Greek letters scratched into it. A teacher wrote the first two neatly composed lines of aphorisms, which translated, read: “You should accept advice from a wise man only” and “You cannot trust all your friends.”

A student struggled to copy out the betas, zetas and thetas in a scraggily but passable hand on four lower lines. On another part of the tablet there is a multiplication table and a reading exercise present.

Peter Toth, co-curator of the exhibit at the library, tells Weisberger that the lesson wasn’t just about getting the letters correct. “It's not only the hands and fingers but also the mind that is being instructed here,” he says.

While there’s no way to know exactly who the student and teacher were, it’s a good guess that the pupil was a high-status boy from a wealthy family, since formal education was reserved for the upper-class males.

If you’re wondering why an Egyptian student was learning his Greek letters, rather than hieroglyphics or a local language, that’s because in the 2nd century A.D., when this lesson was written, Egypt had been under Roman rule for almost 200 years following 300 years of Greek and Macedonian rule under the Ptolemy dynasty. Greeks in Egypt held a special status below Roman citizens but higher than those of Egyptian descent. Any educated person in the Roman world, however, would be expected to know Latin, Greek and—depending on where they lived—local or regional languages.

The type of wax tablet wasn’t just used by schoolchildren, either. The tablets—shallow frames filled with molten beeswax—were used for thousands of years in the Classical world for communication or taking notes. Once the wax dried, a writer employed a stylus to incise the tablet with words. A fan-shaped scraper on the other end of the stylus was used to smooth over mistakes. Like an Etch-A-Sketch, the whole thing could be reheated and reused if necessary.

If the writing was important enough, it was then transcribed onto much more expensive papyrus or parchment for long-term preservation. Tiro, the slave and later freedman who served as Roman orator and statesman Cicero’s secretary, notably, used the tablets to record his master’s speeches, inventing a system of shorthand to do so, which took off and was practiced into the Medieval period.

While most of the wax used in other tablets found by archaeologists long ago has disappeared, Toth tells Weisberger it's likely the dry climate in Egypt kept this particular homework assignment as fresh as the day it was inscribed.

Along with the tablet, the Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition, which will debut April 26, 2019, and run through August 27, will use 100 artifacts to trace the history of the written word over five millennia and five continents. Other notable objects with stories to tell include William Caxton’s 1476 edition of Canterbury Tales, the first book printed in England as well as a Chinese typewriter from the 1970s (more impressive than it sounds), in addition to examples from over 30 different writing systems.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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