Despite the existence of a corpus of some 1,600 texts, scholars have had a difficult time deciphering Early Bronze Age proto-Elamite documents. These texts, written in southwestern Iran between 3,200 and 2,900 B.C.E., stand out as one of the world’s earliest corpora and also one of the most difficult to translate. Researchers from the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton are examining this ancient script in a new light—literally—by using a Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) system, a new technology that illuminates every detail inscribed on the clay tablets.
Researchers examined roughly 1,100 proto-Elamite tablets on loan from the Louvre under the 76 lights in the RTI system’s dome. Separate photos were taken with each light individually before being processed together, allowing researchers to examine each tablet in every possible light, exposing never-before-seen subtleties. Researchers are digitizing the documents and putting them online for discussion, academic crowd-sourcing and cloud-based preservation.
The vast majority of the proto-Elamite texts come from the capital at Susa (Biblical Shushan), a city that played a major role proto-Elamite, Elamite, Mesopotamian, Persian and Parthian history over the course of several millennia. Shushan is well known from the Hebrew Bible; Esther becomes a queen there before saving the Jews, and Nehemiah and Daniel both reside there during the Babylonian exile. The Book of Jubilees (8:21 & 9:2) connects Susa to the earlier Elamite population, who are mentioned in earlier Biblical narratives. According to the Bible, the Elamites are descendants of Elam, one of the sons of Shem and grandson of Noah.
While the Tower of Babel narrative presents a Biblical tradition for the origins of the Elamite language and people, the uncertain connection between the Elamites and their proto-Elamite predecessors has proved a challenge for scholars. The script includes some common elements with early Mesopotamian writing, but a lack of bilingual texts and a great deal of scribal deviations have hampered the researchers’ ability to discover linguistic patterns. The language appears to use both symbolic and phonetic combinations, but the poor scribal tradition and the uncertain relationship with neighboring or later Elamite languages has challenged linguists for decades. However, with the development of RTI technologies and a new universal access made available through digitization, researchers are confident that they have reached the breakthrough point.
Want to try a crowdsourcing project to help ancient research? Find out how you can help with the Oxyrhynchus Papyri in “Scholars Seek Amateur Assistance.”