I'm no lithographer, but it seems to me that making a die cast out of metal, wood or stone, which could be pressed in to clay tablets to produce copies of its textual contents, would be easier than making a printing press that worked with ink and paper. By carving reliefs of Cuneiform signs into blocks of wood and assembling them into frames, typesetting would have been possible with the technology of the early bronze age. Was any such typesetting practiced?

I am focusing on writing formed as impressions on a surface, as practiced with Cuneiform and Linear A. This is because the ink-and-paper printing press required precision metallurgy to manufacture, which would not be necessary for a stamp meant to write in clay by means of forming indentations or raised areas on the material's surface.

I am focusing on the idea of copying entire documents in a single motion, as opposed to individual ideogram stamps or the stylus itself, because of the asymptotic advantage conferred by the ability for costs to grow in proportion to the number of copies, instead of the number of written symbols. Mass distribution of information is a keystone of modern culture, and it is interesting to ask whether there were any examples of related technology in ancient times.

The following resources have not been found to document the existence of a clay imprint printing press:

  • The Wikipedia page about Cuneiform. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuneiform

  • The Wikipedia page about the Phaistos disk - because it does not make it clear whether it was made with ideogram stamps at one hand movement per letter, or whether it was stamped out whole with a "document stamp" in accordance with the technological advantage of a printing press. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaistos_Disc#Typography

  • This more detailed article about the Phaistos disk, which describes the letters as being made with "movable type," but also describes the tools used as "individual stamps," leaving ambiguous the question of whether a face was produced in one stamping motion or several. https://luwianstudies.org/the-phaistos-disc/

  • @MCW What form does evidence of prior research take when at best I could make a list of the sources within which I haven't found the thing I'm asking about? That would be a long list.
    – Retracted
    Jul 9, 2021 at 3:49
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    Of course the "long list" isn't that helpful. Just: "found none" gives us not much indication of either any prior research actually done and no indication at all of where & how you already looked. Potential answerers would benefit from seeing the previous direction, might correct it, might point to 'but it's in there, here…' or might be spared from retracing the same 'mistakes'. So a very short list of what&where you tried and 'found nothing' would be helpful? Say, 2–3 examples? Jul 9, 2021 at 6:42
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    The wedge already is a printing press, just made up of compose keys :) Jul 9, 2021 at 14:14
  • Have you looked at the moveable type porcelain printing presses made by the Chinese around a 1000AD? those were for books. they had whole sheet printing presses much earlier. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_printing_in_East_Asia
    – John
    Jul 11, 2021 at 19:38

2 Answers 2


It seems that the Phaistos Disc is the closest example of such a thing (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaistos_Disc#Typography), although the inscription is pictographic/logographic rather than cuneiform.

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    Cylinder seals (see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cylinder_seal ) seem to be closer to what's sought, and far older. Jul 9, 2021 at 5:31
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    This would benefit from more differentiation of the tech itself (stamps, stencils, dies…) compared to 'our' printing press and a comparison to application ('used for' and possible substrate material, 'paper', wood, metal, stone, ceramics…) as well as demand and volume possibilities, speed, price. Jul 9, 2021 at 12:05
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    @kimchilover True, I didn't think of those. But that's not really typesetting, which is what the OP was asking about; it's more like lithography or woodcuts or the like.
    – Meir
    Jul 9, 2021 at 17:12

Cuneiform was used for accounting documents much more often than for books

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    Sources would improve this answer; I think this is a very important observation, but it would be stronger with sources.
    – MCW
    Jul 9, 2021 at 11:27
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    Right. Early writing we know of was used for that. But soon after that things like "Kesh Temple Hymn", the "Instructions of Shuruppak" or the quite well known "Gilgamesh" come along. — Even today most print quite a few people 'consume' might be cashier's print bills. So, please clarify with references why this info tidbit above is relevant to answer the question. Jul 9, 2021 at 12:03
  • I think this answer is quite insightful, but it needs to add that while there may have been no fundamental technical obstacle, printing presses are only useful if they are used to print (a) standard texts (not accounting) (b) for mass consumption and (c) with moveable type.
    – MCW
    Jul 9, 2021 at 19:08
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    @jan - But woodblock printing was never used to produce receipts; it was used to produce content that could be mass distributed. I think the key issue isn't technology but demand. Cuneiform was used for financial transactions, each of which are unique; it makes no sense to invest the capital to carve the woodblock to print my receipt for my morning coffee. I'm not sure how many moveable type elements you'd need to represent cuneiform.
    – MCW
    Jul 10, 2021 at 10:01
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    @MCW dozens for old Persian cuneiform or Ugaritic, and several hundred to one thousand for Sumerian, according to internet. Other languages probably somewhere in between?
    – Jan
    Jul 10, 2021 at 10:16

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