Colloque – On the trail of the neverending manuscript. Comparative perspectives on rewritable media

International workshop
University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’
30–31 May, 2023

Who wants to live forever? 🎵 … Perhaps some kinds of manuscript do.

In many cases, deliberate ‘text destruction’ is not intended to impede the transmission of knowledge, nor does it imply the destruction of writing media. Rather, it is a resource- and space-saving option in the context of limited resources and an ever-growing need for new texts. Education, administration and note-taking are typical contexts in which this applies. An ideal ‘rewriting’ technology, therefore, would allow the writing surface to be manipulated in such a way that it could be erased and rewritten an infinite number of times with as little effort as possible.

Different manuscript cultures have responded to this challenge in different ways. The products of these efforts include clay tablets and wax boards, a bewildering variety of rewritable wooden boards, graphite pencils, and ingenious tricks for erasing text from papyrus, parchment and other materials. The history of ‘rewritable’ writing technologies reveals complex processes of cultural transfer as well as intense interactions with competing options, and has far-reaching theoretical implications for textual transmission, memorisation and composition techniques, the acquisition of writing, and the conceptualisation of mental processes.

The workshop aims to bring together researchers from different disciplines and expertise in order to obtain a multifaceted picture of the peculiar features of multiple ‘rewriting techniques’, their technological and theoretical aspects, and their contexts of use, in what might be called an intersection of theory and practice on the trail of the ‘neverending manuscript’.

The workshop is part of the initiative ‘On the trail of the neverending manuscript’ by Michele Cammarosano, funded by the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’ (2023–25).

Programme :

Tuesday, May 30, 14:00 14:30: registration 

Tuesday, May 30 ⦁ Session 1 (14:30–18:30) ⦁ Clay & Papyrus

Chair: Noemi Borrelli (L’Orientale)

  • 14:30 Michele Cammarosano (L’Orientale): Introduction to the workshop
  • 15:00 Carmen Gütschow (Berlin): Rewritable Media – Clay tablets in conservation
  • 15:25 Cécile Michel (Paris, CNRS / Universität Hamburg, CSMC): Erasing signs and lines on Old Assyrian cuneiform clay tablets
  • 15:50 Jamie Novotny (LMU, München): Ashurbanipal and objects for the temples Esagil and Esharra: a case study of erasing and rewriting texts on clay, metal, and stone at the height of the Assyrian empire
    • 16:15 break
  • 16:45 Gian Pietro Basello (L’Orientale): They rewrote on clay… and also wax and metal. The terminology of rewritable media in Elam
  • 17:10 Susanne Töpfer (Museo Egizio, Torino): Objects, documents and writings: the reconstruction of ‘multi-text’ papyrus manuscripts in the Museo Egizio
  • 17:35 Elena Luise Hertel (Universität Basel): Why reuse manuscripts in Late Bronze Age Egypt? An attempt to explain the coexistence of reused and non-reused papyri in Deir el-Medina
  • 18:00 discussion

Wednesday, May 31 ⦁ Session 2 (9:00–13:00) ⦁ Wax

Chair: Tommaso Raiola (L’Orientale)

  • 9:00 Mélanie Roffet-Salque & Samuel Johns (University of Bristol): Identifying the ancient use of beeswax – A biomolecular approach
  • 9:25 Gianluca Del Mastro (Università della Campania ‘L. Vanvitelli’): Reuse in classical antiquity: papyri and other writing materials
  • 9:50 Thomas Wozniak (Universität Tübingen): ​​Wax tablets as writing media during the Middle Ages
  • 10:15 Marc H. Smith (Paris, École nationale des chartes / EPHE (PSL)): Writing on wax tablets and the evolution of cursive scripts in the Latin West
    • 10:40 discussion
    • 11:10 break
  • 11:40 ‘Waxed chants’: Chant, aulos & lyra performance (Laura Noviello, L’Orientale & Marco Sciascia, Orte)
  • 12:00 Hands-on session with experimental replicas of historical wax tablets and styli, metalpoint writing, and Quranic tablets (Andrea Brigaglia, Michele Cammarosano & Marco Sciascia)
        • 13:00 standing lunch

Wednesday, May 31 ⦁ Session 3 (14:30–18:30) ⦁ Wood, Parchment & Paper

Ester Simoes B Ferreira (TH Köln, CICS)

  • 14:30 Claudia Colini (Universität Hamburg, CSMC): Second chances: how to erase inks according to recipes from the Arab world
  • 14:55 Paola Buzi (La Sapienza, Roma): The second life of Coptic manuscripts: when, where and why?
  • 15:20 Georgios Boudalis (The Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki): The ‘patchwork’ palimpsests of Sinai
  • 15:45 Antonio Manieri (L’Orientale): Writing and re-writing wooden tablets in 7th-8th century Japan: the mokkan for learning practice
    • 16:10 break
  • 16:40 Chiara Ghidini (L’Orientale): Discipline, profession, religious practice, and purification: a cultural history of copying and coping in Nara Japan and beyond
  • 17:05 Andrea Brigaglia & Dahir Lawan Mu’az (L’Orientale): Writing on Wood in West Africa: description, state of the art, and possible future research on an Islamic cultural practice
    • 17:30 discussion
    • 18:00 general discussion, conclusion
    • 20:00 conference dinner

Thursday, June 1 ⦁ Extras 

Guided visit to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, with Luca Prosdocimo (L’Orientale) (for speakers only)


The workshop will take place in the conference hall of Palazzo Corigliano (2nd floor) in Piazza San Domenico Maggiore 12 in the heart of the historic center of Naples, where the Department of Asia, Africa and the Mediterranean is based.

Admission is free, everybody is welcome. For more info, please contact mcammarosano [at]

Source : University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’

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