Writing on Clay


When we write using familiar technologies like pencil and paper or computer, we take for granted much of the actual writing process.  Even though we once struggled to learn how to form the letters or format the files, these processes have now become pretty automatic -- we just don't think about them, focusing instead on what we're going to say.

Clay was once a common medium for writing, but except for workshops like this, no one writes on clay any more. Writing with an unfamiliar technology like clay foregrounds many of the things we normally take for granted when we write on paper or with a computer.

As you do the workshop assignment, consider how writing on clay forces you to pay attention to aspects of writing that you normally do without a second thought. No one longs for the good old days of clay writing, but how does thinking about the technological framework of writing illuminate the ways we use computers or pencil and pens?

The Writing on Clay workshop:  You will each receive about 4 ounces of nontoxic modeling and a stylus;  there is a roll of wax paper available to protect the surface of the table.

  • Prepare a clay tablet to be used as a writing surface.
  • Using the stylus provided, or any other implement you may have on hand, each member of the group should try the assigned task.
  • Here are the tasks. Each group will be assigned a different one

1.  Transcribe the following passage (just the Latin, not the English translation):

Caesar exspectavit dum legati ad castra venirent. Antequam legati ad castra venirent, legiones eduxit. Caesar legatos laudavit, quod ad castra venissent.  Casear legatos laudavit, non quod ad castra venissent, sed quia legiones exspectabat.  Legatos laudavit, quippe qui socii fideles essent.

[Casear waited for the envoys to come to the camp. He led out his legions before the envoys could come to the camp.  Caesar praised the envoys because (as he said) they had come to the camp.  Caesar praised the envoys, not because they had come to the camp, but because he was waiting for his legions.  He praised the envoys since they were faithful allies.]

2. Draw a map showing how to get from where you live to class. Make sure that you label streets and landmarks, and give any directions that a visitor might need to follow that route.

3.  Transcribe the following passage:

The concept of a language is one we take so much for granted that ‘What is a language?’ sounds a very odd question.  It is certainly a question which is enough to put any right-minded person on their guard.  It is too easily recognized as belonging to that class of bogus inquiries which are justified neither by a genuine desire for information nor by social obligation.  Leaving aside children, mental defectives, and linguistic theorists, what a language is is something already perfectly well understood by anyone who can ask what it is.

Roy Harris, The Language Makers. 1980, p. 3

4.  Write a short clay-mail to a friend describing how to prepare a clay surface for writing.

5.  When Hamlet asks, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” what exactly does he mean?

6.  Create a short, illustrated advertisement for your favorite soft drink.

7. Using your clay, send a series of texts to another member of your group.

8. Write a short essay extolling the advantages of writing on clay compared to other writing technologies.