Archaeologists report deciphering Elamite script discovered in southern Iran

August 26, 2022 - 18:32

TEHRAN–A team of French archaeologists believes they have partially deciphered an ancient Elamite script found in southern Iran some 120 years ago.

French archaeologist Francois Desset and his team assume that they have partially deciphered the ancient script, using eight silver cups as a basis for the decryption, with many symbols of the Linear Elamite writing system carved into the metal.

“The cups had long been in the possession of a private collector and were only recently made available to researchers,” Desset, who works at the University of Tehran in Iran and the Archeorient research laboratory in Lyon, France, has recently told DW.

For some 120 years, the composing framework known as “Linear Elamite” was viewed as obscured. Presently, a group of archeologists professes to have, to some extent, interpreted the composing framework. However, different analysts are more reluctant.

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, the German broadcaster reported on August 22.

Researchers quickly realized 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 civilization used the writing system during the Bronze Age in the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BC.

A UNESCO World Heritage, Susa was once the capital of the Elamite Empire and later an administrative capital of the Achaemenian king Darius I and his successors from 522 BC.

The characters were given the name “Linear Elamite.”But, since the discovery, experts haven’t known how to read the diamonds and squares or understand what they meant. Only a few characters could be clearly interpreted.

The real surprise, Desset said, is the nature of the writing system. Researchers assumed that Linear Elamite writing is 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.”

“Until clear evidence is provided, the Linear Elamite script is not fully deciphered,” Michael Mader told DW. Mader is a 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 the known pronunciation and 19 plausible suggestions.

“It may well be that Desset’s work will add more characters to the list of suggestions,” Mader said. “But until we know the function and pronunciation of all characters, we won’t know for sure.”

Mader also has “considerable doubts” about Desset’s statement that the script is purely phonographic: “Mathematical analyses show that the Linear Elamite writing system consists of only 70 percent phonetic characters,” Mader said. The rest are word signs, he added.

As mentioned by the German broadcaster, 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.

Over the past decades, seasons of archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence of continual habitation dating back to about 5000 BC. The earliest urban structures there date around 4000 BC. However, some parts of Susa are still inhabited as Shush, Khuzestan province on a strip of land between the rivers Shaour (a tributary of the Karkheh) and Dez.

According to the UN cultural body, “the excavated architectural monuments include administrative, residential, and palatial structures” and the site contains several layers of urban settlement dating from the 5th millennium BC through the 13th century CE.

Ruins and relics unearthed from the region demonstrate that even the earliest potteries and ceramics in Susa were of unsurpassed quality, decorated with birds, mountain goats, and other animal designs.


Leave a Comment