Saturday, October 6, 2012

5. Making the Basic Wedges

Default position
When you have a suitable writing surface you are ready to begin writing cuneiform. Use a stylus with a square or angled end. (The pictures here feature an angle-end stylus.) Take the stylus in your right hand, much like you would hold a pencil, but with the prepared end extending about an inch or inch and a half from the fingers (see picture, right). If you are using an angled-stylus, the angle should slope downward. The flat part of the stylus (the long sides of the rectangle that you sanded down) should be against the thumb and in "valley" formed by the index and middle fingers. Using the thumb, roll back the stylus very slightly so that the the thumb will be slightly pressed against the upper edge its flat side. This puts the back edge in the position for writing horizontal wedges. This position is the default position

Horizontal Wedges:

Position for making horizontal wedges
Horizontal wedges are made by the back bottom long edge of the stylus and the corner of this edge at the tip. The stylus should be held at an angle close to the surface. The head of the wedge, made by the corner of the tip, will be the deepest part of the impression and the tail (the horizontal line) will gradually rise to the surface. Practice making horizontal wedges and signs so that they look as close to real cuneiform signs as possible. The order of horizontal strokes is basically from top to bottom and left to right. (For more details on order, see below.) With some practice you will be able to vary the length of the horizontal line by adjusting the angle of the stylus to the tablet. Some wedges require long horizontal tails to create a box or space in or on which to write other strokes.

Position for making vertical wedges

Vertical Wedges:

Vertical wedges are made by rolling the stylus backward almost (but not quite) 180 degrees between the fingers using the thumb. While holding the stylus in the default position described for horizontal wedges, pull the thumb back so that the thumb is against the other (opposite) flat side of the stylus, somewhat against the bottom edge. The vertical wedge is made by the long opposite edge of the rectangular tip, using the upper corner (see the diagram showing the edges to be used, below). The length of vertical wedges is limited by the width of long rectangular side of the stylus (again, see the line diagram below). The order of writing vertical wedges is from left to right and top to bottom.

In order to get a vertical wedge with a more symmetrical head (rather than one where the head sweeps out on the right almost like a horizontal wedge), steepen the angle of the stylus to the writing surface. Let the form you want to produce determine the stylus angle by experimentation.

Beginners sometimes make vertical wedges that look more like rectangles than wedges. Make sure you press the corner of the stylus into the clay to form the head. Don't press the whole vertical side equally into the clay. The tail of the wedge is made by a gradual shallowing of the stylus edge in the clay. 

The following diagram summarizes how horizontal and vertical wedges are made by showing the corners and edges of the stylus used. The area used for vertical wedges looks upside down, but this makes sense when it is realized that the stylus is to be rotated, as described above:

Even though the stylus angle may shift slightly between horizontal and vertical wedges, you will find that the technique of rolling the stylus between the fingers for the two types of wedges allows rather rapid writing, especially since many signs consist of only these two types of wedges.

Small Angular Wedges and the Winkelhaken:
Position for small wedges and the Winkelhaken

Various angular wedges (small wedges and the Winkelhaken) require a shift in stylus angle. Start by holding the stylus in the position for writing vertical wedges. Then push the index finger down so that the tail of the stylus shifts up 45-degrees relative to vertical-wedge position. Compare the position of the fingers in the image on the left with the picture of the hand making a vertical wedge, above. The shift of the stylus tip down thus will require moving the hand up relative to the tablet to keep the wedge on the same textual line. Make the wedge by using the back upper corner of the stylus. Larger wedges are made by pressing harder (deeper); smaller wedges are made by a lighter impression. Groups of wedges are made working left to rightf they are diagonal, they are made from bottom to top (moving left to right).   

Less Frequent Diagonal Wedges:
nu sign
šum sign
tim sign
Some signs have unusual strokes, such as the upward diagonal of the nu and tim signs, and the downward diagonals of the tim or šum. The upward diagonal of the nu is made by holding the stylus in the  position for horizontal wedges and pushing down the finger as if making a wedge. This puts the stylus in the position to make and upward diagonal with the back long edge normally used for horizontals. The downward horizontal of the šum sign is made by changing the angle of the hand (twisting the knuckles back toward the elbow and bending the wrist inward) so that one can make a diagonal horizontal stroke.

Order of Wedges:

The order of strokes has been partly described above. One basically moves from left to right and top to bottom. The order of strokes in some signs may be confusing. If a sign begins with a vertical and a horizontal underneath (e.g., ku, lu, ib), the vertical is made first and the bottom horizontal comes next (see the order given for the lu sign below). Then the other parts of the signs are written, in the order described. To repeat what was said above, a row of diagonal wedges are drawn bottom to top (which is essentially left to right). The sa sign seems best drawn by drawing the two horizontals and then inserting the three verticals. The ak sign is made in the order left horizontal, vertical, bottom box horizontal, top box horizontal, the two inner horizontals, and finally the last vertical.

John Huehnergard, Introduction to Ugaritic (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), 19–20, has a diagram of Ugaritic signs with the order in which the strokes were written in antiquity. A main difference with what I described above is that a stack of horizontal wedges (for example, in the h sign) is written from bottom to top.

Size of the Signs:

The more deeply one presses, the larger and distinctive the wedge and sign. One should learn to write in both a delicate (shallow) as well as an aggressive (deep) hand. Some signs will require small delicate detail in the middle of an otherwise coarser framework. The depth, aggressiveness, or size of the signs will be limited by the length of the edge that makes the vertical strokes. The smaller the signs, the more text one will be able to put on a tablet. But the smaller the signs, the more difficult it is to read and to write complex signs. If you are using clay that can dry and it seems too soft, form the tablet blank and let it sit for a few hours or even a day before writing. 

Relationship of Wedge Strokes:

Successive wedges added to a particular sign often alter the shape of wedges written earlier. In the actual example of the lu sign above, the bottom horizontal overwrites the tail of the first vertical, and the second vertical (stroke 6) clips the end of the three horizontals just before it. In addition the writing of the final vertical (stroke 7) pushes against and scrunches up the vertical before it. Such overwriting, clipping, and scrunching give a sign its finished look and add an element of style. 

In addition, practice will allow a cuneiform writer to use the clay's plasticity to advantage. For example, a wedge may be formed by starting a millimeter or two out from its final position and pushing its head into position, toward the left, top, or top-left. This helps with aligning parallel stacks and stands of wedges.