The ancient city of Susa in southwestern Iran. Researchers discovered items with Elamite writing in the area around these ruins.

Archaeological mystery
Ancient Elamite script from Iran deciphered?

For a long time, the writing system known as "Linear Elamite" was considered illegible. Now a team of archaeologists claims to have partially deciphered the writing system. But other researchers are more hesitant. Katrin Ewert has the details

Diamonds and squares with dots and dashes – French archaeologists came across these geometric characters as early as 1903 when they were excavating ancient ruins in the city of Susa in southwestern Iran.

Researchers quickly realised that the language was one of the four oldest scripts known to humankind, along with Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Indus script. The Elamite civilisation used the writing system during the Bronze Age in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BCE.

The characters were given the name "Linear Elamite". But, since the discovery, experts haven't known how to read the diamonds and squares or understood what they mean. Only a few characters could be interpreted.

Silver cups provide clues

French archaeologist Francois Desset and his team now believe they have partially deciphered the ancient script. Eight silver cups featuring a particularly large number of engraved character strings formed the basis for the process.

"The cups had long been in the possession of a private collector and were only recently made available to researchers," said Desset, who divides his time between the University of Tehran in Iran and the Archeorient research laboratory in Lyon, France.

One of the silver cups that Desset and his team used to decipher the Elamite writng (photo: Francois Desset/Mahboubian collection)
The mystery of 'Linear Elamite': diamonds and squares with dots and dashes – French archaeologists came across these geometric characters as early as 1903 when they were excavating ancient ruins in the city of Susa in southwestern Iran. Researchers quickly realised that the language was one of the four oldest scripts known to humankind, along with Mesopotamian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphics and the Indus script. The Elamite civilisation used the writing system during the Bronze Age in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BCE

How are ancient scripts deciphered?

One common method of deciphering unknown characters is by comparing the same or similar texts in different writing systems. This way, experts can deduce the characters in the unknown script from the known one. For example, let's imagine that we have a text in English with the translation in Chinese directly below.

In the English version, the words "King Karl" appear often. If we now find character sequences in the Chinese version that repeat in the same places, these indicate the correct characters for "King Karl" in Chinese. The research team around Desset used precisely this method with the silver cups.

The cups had inscriptions of kings and rulers in the same language (Elamite), but in two different writing systems: the already-known Mesopotamian cuneiform script and the unknown Linear Elamite. Little by little, the team was therefore able to decipher what the characters meant.

"The cups were the key we needed to decipher the writing," Desset said. "As a result, we can now read 72 characters." Only four characters are still unknown, the researcher said.

The real surprise, Desset said, is the nature of the writing system. Researchers assumed that Linear Elamite would be a mixture of phonographic and logographic writing.

Phonographic characters, or "phonograms", are individual letters and syllables and represent a speech sound. Logographic characters, or "word signs", represent a whole word, the way our numerical sign of "1" stands for "one".

"At the end of my analysis, I found that Linear Elamite writing is a purely phonographic script," Desset said. "That makes it the oldest of its kind in the world – and changes our view of the entire evolution of writing."

Decipherment meets with criticism

In the research community, however, Desset's discovery has been met with some criticism.

"Until clear evidence is provided, the Linear Elamite script will still be considered as undeciphered," commented Michael Mader, linguist at the University of Bern and scientific director of the Swiss Alice Kober Society for the Decipherment of Ancient Writing Systems. So far, he said, there are only 15 characters with known pronunciation and 19 plausible suggestions.

"It may well be that Desset's work means more characters are added to the list of suggestions," Mader said. "But, we won't know for sure until the function and pronunciation of all characters has been established."

Mäder also has "considerable doubts" about Desset's statement that the script is purely phonographic: "Mathematical analyses have found that only 70% of the Linear Elamite writing system consists of phonetic characters," Mader said. The rest are word signs, he added.

Whether Desset is right or not remains an open question for the time being.

In October, experts on ancient writing systems will meet at a conference in Norway to discuss the discovery.

Katrin Ewert

© Deutsche Welle 2022

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