Have Scholars Finally Deciphered a Mysterious Ancient Script?

Linear Elamite, a writing system used in what is now Iran, may reveal the secrets of a little-known kingdom bordering Sumer

Illustration of Linear Elamite text emerging from a burst of paper
Over the past century, archaeologists have uncovered more than 1,600 Proto-Elamite inscriptions, but only about 43 in Linear Elamite, scattered widely across Iran. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Wikimedia Commons under public domain, Getty Images, Desset et al.

One of the toughest codes to break is an ancient writing system. Understanding Egyptian hieroglyphics took the lucky 1799 find of the Rosetta Stone, which translated a Demotic decree (the language of everyday ancient Egyptians) into Greek and hieroglyphics. Even so, French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion labored more than two painstaking decades to make sense of the strange Egyptian symbols.

Today, only a handful of millennia-old scripts remain unreadable. Thanks to a team of European scholars led by French archaeologist Francois Desset, one of the last holdouts might finally be deciphered: Linear Elamite, an obscure system used in what is now Iran.

If the findings are correct—and the claim is hotly debated by the researchers’ peers—then they could shed welcome light on a little-known society that flourished between ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus River Valley at the dawn of civilization. Recently published in the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie, the analysis could also rewrite the evolution of writing itself.

The Rosetta Stone
The Rosetta Stone Hans Hillewaert via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The paper uses newly examined inscriptions from a set of ancient silver beakers to propose a method for reading the symbols that make up Linear Elamite, potentially paving the way for understanding long-obscure texts.

“This is one of the major archaeological discoveries of the last decades,” says Massimo Vidale, an archaeologist at the University of Padua who was not involved in the research. “It was based on the same approach of Champollion’s breakthrough—identifying and reading phonetically the names of kings.”

Others, however, remain cautious until Desset and his colleagues publish detailed translations of texts.

Early writing systems

The story begins more than 5,000 years ago, in the thriving city of Susa, on the fringe of the great Mesopotamian plain and the edge of the vast Iranian plateau that rises to the east. Susa was at the heart of an urban society spanning much of what is today southwestern Iran. The city’s western neighbors, the Sumerians, dubbed its residents the Elamites.

Elam was part of the world’s first surge of cities to use written symbols to administer an increasingly complex society. Early Elamites traded with both Mesopotamian kingdoms to the west and the Indus River civilization that flourished in what is today India and Pakistan. They created the foundation for later Persian kingdoms, including the Achaemenid dynasty that eventually subjugated much of the ancient Near East.

The Sumerians are credited with creating the first known writing system around 3100 B.C.E., using wedge-shaped marks made on wet clay that gave the script the name cuneiform (from the Latin word cuneus, or wedge). The system uses both syllables and images—logograms—to record language. It was adapted first for the Sumerian language and, later, for Akkadian and Hittite. Drawing on thousands of excavated clay tablets, 19th-century scholars deciphered the script, unlocking details on the economy, religion and government of the region.

Chogha Zanbil, an ancient Elamite complex in the Khuzestan province of Iran
Chogha Zanbil, an ancient Elamite complex in the Khuzestan province of Iran Mehdi Zali.K via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

Meanwhile, French archaeologists digging in Susa at the turn of the 20th century uncovered evidence of a writing system that seemed nearly as old as cuneiform but used a different set of symbols. The system apparently fell out of use, as scribes in Susa—for reasons that remain unclear—instead turned to cuneiform to write their language. About 800 years later, another home-grown system took hold. Scholars dubbed the earlier system Proto-Elamite and the second, which was believed to have grown out of the first, Linear Elamite; both were presumed to record the Elamite language, about which little is known.

Over the past century, archaeologists have uncovered more than 1,600 Proto-Elamite inscriptions, but only about 43 in Linear Elamite, scattered widely across Iran. The latter was used sporadically and fell out of use with the collapse of urban areas across the Middle East around 1800 B.C.E. Mesopotamian cuneiform and, later, the Greek alphabet and other scripts filled the gap.

Scholars have long struggled to crack the code of the two systems. Some experts argue Linear Elamite is unrelated to the earlier script, given their separation in time, while others believe Proto-Elamite provided the basis for the later script.

Perforated stone with Linear Elamite inscriptions, from the collections of the Louvre
Perforated stone with Linear Elamite inscriptions, from the collections of the Louvre Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Deciphering Linear Elamite

Enter Desset, a French archaeologist at the University of Tehran. In 2015, he gained access to a private London collection of extraordinary silver vessels with a host of inscriptions in both cuneiform and Linear Elamite. They were excavated in the 1920s and sold to Western dealers, so their origin and authenticity had been questioned. Metallurgical analysis of the vessels, however, determined they were ancient rather than modern forgeries.

As for their origin, Desset suspected they came from a royal cemetery hundreds of miles southeast of Susa, dating to about 2000 B.C.E.—exactly the time Linear Elamite was in use. Per the study, the elaborate beakers represent “the oldest and most complete examples of Elamite royal inscriptions in cuneiform.” They belonged to different rulers from two dynasties.

The vessels’ juxtaposition of scripts made it “the jackpot” for deciphering Linear Elamite, says Desset. Some proper names written in cuneiform could now be compared with symbols in Linear Elamite—including the names of known Elamite kings, such as Šilhaha. By tracking repeated symbols that were likely proper names, Desset was able to make sense of the script, which comes in an array of geometric shapes. He also translated verbs such as “gave” and “made.”

Grid of the 72 deciphered alpha-syllabic signs on which the transliteration system of Linear Elamite is based.
Grid of the 72 deciphered alpha-syllabic signs on which the transliteration system of Linear Elamite is based. The most common graphic variants are shown for each sign. Blue signs are attested in southwestern Iran, red ones in southeastern Iran. Black signs are common to both areas. F. Desset

After further analysis, Desset and his co-authors claimed they could read 72 Linear Elamite symbols, or more than 96 percent of those known. “Even if the claim of a complete decipherment cannot be made yet, mainly due to the limited number of inscriptions, it is … not very far,” the authors write in their paper.

Manfred Krebernik, an expert on Near Eastern Studies at Germany’s University of Jena, finds Desset’s case “mostly convincing.” Matthew Stolper, an Assyriologist at the University of Chicago, says, “The argument is clear, coherent and plausible.” Piotr Steinkeller, an Assyriologist at Harvard University, is “quite convinced” by the decipherment, which he hails as “a major achievement.” None were involved in the research.

The hard work of translating individual texts remains. Part of the challenge is that the Elamite language—which may have been spoken in the region for more than 3,000 years—has no known relatives, making it difficult to know what sounds the symbols might represent. “The translations in some cases remain problematic,” the authors acknowledge.

Rewriting writing?

Some of Desset’s other assertions have proven more controversial.

Writing systems employ a number of methods to express a spoken language. English, for example, uses Latin letters to express particular sounds, while Chinese is based on pictures, or logograms, with specific meanings.

Linear Elamite inscriptions on a silver vessel
Linear Elamite inscriptions on a silver vessel Desset / Iran, 2018

Cuneiform and hieroglyphics use symbols denoting both sounds and logograms. But Desset argues that Linear Elamite takes an approach more like the modern alphabet. He concludes that the script draws solely on syllables, making it the oldest known writing system to do so. “If the recent decipherment is in all details correct,” notes Krebernik, “the system would indeed be innovative, and similar to the later creation of the alphabet.” The first fully formed, phonetic alphabet is thought to have come into use among Phoenician traders around 1100 B.C.E.

Desset says his data strongly suggests that Proto-Elamite is a predecessor of Linear Elamite, as French experts first asserted in the early 20th century. That theory gets little support from scholars such as Oxford University’s Jacob Dahl and the University of Toronto’s Kathryn Kelley. They argue that Proto-Elamite is likely a mix of syllables and logograms and underscore the 800-year gap between the two writing systems.

Akkadian/cuneiform and Elamite/Linear Elamite inscription of King Puzur-Sushinak, from the collections of the Louvre
Akkadian/cuneiform and Elamite/Linear Elamite inscription of King Puzur-Sushinak, from the collections of the Louvre Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Another controversial claim by Desset is his contention that Proto-Elamite and Sumerian cuneiform are contemporaneous, an argument based largely on differing interpretations of radiocarbon-dated organic materials found alongside the inscriptions. Some scholars contend that Proto-Elamite tablets date slightly later than early cuneiform, while Desset believes they are, in fact, sister scripts.

He notes that Proto-Elamite finds at the Iranian site of Tal-e-Malyan come from the same period—around 3200 B.C.E.—as the earliest proto-cuneiform text. This would mean that two different systems arose at the same time in neighboring societies—an intriguing theory that scholars say could offer a new way to read the evolution of writing.

Desset and his co-authors hope that further excavations in Iran can help fill the gaps between the demise of Proto-Elamite and the appearance of Linear Elamite, providing a better understanding of the writing systems’ relationship. In the meantime, he has taken on the onerous task of deciphering Linear Elamite texts based on the new method. Then, he says he intends to tackle the next summit of ancient writing system codebreakers: Proto-Elamite.