Ancient Iranian script finally unlocked
Despite the progress made deciphering ancient scripts over the past two centuries, a few remain tantalizingly out of reach, including the ancient Iranian script, Linear Elamite. Or is it? According to an article in the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie, this 4,000-year-old script, which recorded the language of Elam, has finally been almost completely deciphered. While a few questions remain, this is a massive step in understanding the language of the powerful Elamite kingdom that would eventually become the Persian Empire.
Like the Indus Valley script, the Minoan Linear-A script, and a few others, Linear Elamite has puzzled scholars since it was first discovered in excavations at the city of Susa (biblical Shushan) in 1903. A likely descendent of Proto-Elamite, another still undeciphered script, Linear Elamite was the main script of the Elamite language in southern Iran from 2300 until 1880 B.C.E., when it was replaced by Mesopotamian cuneiform.
Many ancient scripts have been deciphered using artifacts that feature both the unknown script and at least one known script which records the same message as the unknown. This was the case for Egyptian hieroglyphs, which were unlocked by the famous Rosetta Stone that contained the same text written in hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Greek. The decipherment of Linear Elamite, however, was a far more complex process. Although some artifacts contain both Linear Elamite and cuneiform, the two scripts never seem to translate each other. Such occurrences did allow a handful of signs to be deciphered, but it was a far cry from the smoking gun of the Rosetta Stone.
Recognizing these limitations, a team of scholars decided to take a different path. The team recognized that a group of silver beakers with Elamite inscriptions could be related to a second group of beakers that contained inscriptions written in Mesopotamian cuneiform. Although the texts are not in themselves identical, the extremely standardized nature of these inscriptions allowed the team to consider these objects much like the Rosetta Stone. With these texts, the team was able to identify numerous personal, geographic, and divine names in the Linear Elamite inscriptions, as well as Elamite phrases, clauses, and even sentences known from cuneiform texts. Working out from there, they succeeded in slowly unlocking the script sign by sign.
Through their breakthrough, the team identified and deciphered 72 different signs. While this does not account for all signs present in the Linear Elamite inscriptions, the remaining undeciphered signs are fairly rare. According to the team, it is possible that several of the undeciphered signs may be no more than graphic variants of already deciphered signs.
As further excavations in Iran are carried out, the team hopes that additional Linear Elamite inscriptions will be discovered that can unlock the remaining signs. For now, however, over 95 percent of sign occurrences are represented in the team’s list of deciphered signs. Several scholars not associated with the research told the Smithsonian Magazine that they were quite convinced by the decipherment, even if some details are still being ironed out.
Before this breakthrough, very little was known about Elamite scripts, and the language itself is still poorly understood. Now, however, it can be determined that Linear Elamite was quite distinct from the scripts of other cultures at the time, such as cuneiform and hieroglyphs. While other scripts utilized logographic or logo-syllabic scripts, Linear Elamite was an alpha-syllabary. As such, each sign represented a specific phonetic value. Unlike alphabetic scripts, however, these values typically included both a consonant and vowel sound (such as “ka,” “bi,” or “mu”), although some signs could represent a consonant or vowel alone. This system allowed for a significantly smaller number of signs than logographic or logo-syllabic systems. According to the team, Linear Elamite likely only had a little over 100 signs, while cuneiform had over 600. Meanwhile, most alphabetic systems, which first appeared in the Levant in the second millennium B.C.E., have between 20 and 30 signs.
The Elamite language was the lingua franca of the Elamite kingdom, eventually falling out of use towards the end of the first millennium B.C.E. when it was replaced by Persian. A language isolate, there are no known languages related to Elamite, although several hypotheses have attempted to connect it to either the Dravidian, Afro-Asiatic, or Caucasian language groups.
The earliest attestation of writing in Iran is the still undeciphered Proto-Elamite script, which was first written at the end of the fourth millennium B.C.E., making it one of the oldest scripts in the world, alongside Sumerian cuneiform and the undeciphered Indus Valley script. The Proto-Elamite script went out of use around 2900 B.C.E., and it was not until around 2300, with Linear-Elamite, that an indigenous script is once again documented in ancient Iran. Although it is not certain that Linear-Elamite was a descendant of Proto-Elamite, the team that deciphered Linear Elamite is quite confident that it is. They hope that their recent work will eventually lead to the key that will unlock Proto-Elamite as well.
The team of scholars included François Desset, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Matthieu Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello, and Gianni Marchesi
Editor’s note: This article was lightly modified after discussions with the original scholars.
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