Proto-Elamite Story

hrant's picture
oldnick's picture

Well, it’s good to know that technology can be thoughtfully applied to crack a tough nut. But, tell me: was his tablet computer an Apple? His findings will not be cool unless is was, you know…

DTY's picture

That's a really terrible article, even by the usual low standards of archaeology-related journalism. You have to be very careful when talking to journalists, because they'll misinterpret anything they possibly can, and pick up on random throwaway remarks and spin them into major points. And it doesn't help that this one doesn't seem to have gone to any other expert on the topic to get perspective, comment, etc.

hrant's picture

David, sadly I'm not surprised to hear that. I'm no expert, but I did sense some passages that smelled of journalistic contrivance. Can you provide specifics though? If you have the time/inclination.


quadibloc's picture

When I saw the part about a big black dome with flashing lights, I felt trepidation, because computers are only shaped like domes in bad science-fiction, and front-panel lights are out in the computer world today.

But it wasn't a monster computer that deciphered the language; it was a specialized camera that captured elusive features of the relief inscriptions.

So there's nothing in the article to set off any alarm bells.

The other link in this thread, though, essentially says that proto-Elamite inscriptions are understood, but they aren't really representative of an actual language - pictures of things accompanied by a count of how many are being receipted for. So that does make me suspicious.

DTY's picture

These are just my opinions, and I'm not an expert, but here are some things in the article that seemed a bit off.

Breakthrough in world's oldest undeciphered writing

The headline is misleading, even in relation to the article itself. As the body of the article makes clear, there hasn't been a breakthrough; rather, there has been a pile of money spent on an imaging system that the researcher hopes may lead to a breakthrough (cf. If you read more closely, the only real announcement here is that the main group of tablets in Paris will be imaged and then these images will be put online. This is nice and undoubtedly useful, but hardly amazing – they've been published on paper, albeit long ago and not up to modern standards. Whether it leads to any breakthrough remains to be seen. But apart from the device itself, there's very little here that couldn't have been said ten years ago:

So far Dr Dahl has deciphered 1,200 separate signs

Um, no. I'm sure he didn't say that. He has been updating Meriggi's catalogue listing all the distinct signs used in Proto-Elamite script, of which there are about 1000 to 1200 in all. Some of these have been understood for quite a while; many more remain obscure.

This first case of educational underinvestment proved fatal for the writing system, which was corrupted and then completely disappeared after only a couple of hundred years.

This part is a little bizarre, but I'm not sure whether it was the journalist or Dahl spinning an observation about glyph variation a little too far. The system appears to be less standardized than proto-cuneiform, which itself shows quite a bit of instability, but people weren't writing these tablets for fun. They're basically bookkeeping detritus. The script was used for several generations over a large area because it was useful, and if there were problems of consistency, people generally react to that by simplifying or standardizing. With proto-cuneiform, between 3100 and 2700 they simplified, standardized, and "syntacticized" (made the writing system correspond more to spoken language). If proto-Elamite writers instead abandoned the system – which is not certain, because there is a hypothesis that the Linear Elamite script is a radically simplified descendant of proto-Elamite – it would suggest that the whole notion of writing in general ceased to be needed for a while, which does happen now and then.

Making it even harder to decode is the fact that it's unlike any other ancient writing style. There are no bi-lingual texts and few helpful overlaps to provide a key to these otherwise arbitrary looking dashes and circles and symbols.

It's not very different from proto-cuneiform, except for the key difference that proto-cuneiform has a well-understood descendant script. The relationship with proto-cuneiform numerals has been very useful for figuring out what is known of proto-Elamite, actually. There are ancient scripts with much worse problems of lack of bilinguals and short texts that provide little to work with, such as Linear A and Harappan.

This is a writing system - and not a spoken language - so there's no way of knowing how words sounded, which might have provided some phonetic clues.

This appears to have been badly garbled somehow. I think the point being made probably had something to do with how proto-Elamite script, apart from the possible syllabic uses that Dahl thinks he can identify, appears to be entirely logographic, so there's no phonetic structure to provide clues to meaning. (Not that phonetic clues would help much unless the language were closely related to later Elamite or something else that can be read.)

But infuriatingly for the codebreakers, when these proto-Elamites borrowed the concept of writing from the Mesopotamians, they made up an entirely different set of symbols.

Why they should make the intellectual leap to embrace writing and then at the same time re-invent it in a different local form remains a puzzle.

Sort of, not exactly. It looks like what happened is that the numeral system, which had some limited semantics about what was being counted embedded in it, developed first, in Mesopotamia. The proto-Elamite script borrowed this, but it looks like both Mesopotamia and western Iran developed this into something more like a writing system in parallel, using some similar elements but mostly independently. The numeral system appears to have been borrowed at a time fairly early in the process of developing a fuller proto-cuneiform writing system.

Egypt appears to be a more puzzling case of borrowing the idea but reinventing the entire system, unless Egyptian script is older than currently known.

It's possible to work out the rations given to these farm labourers.

Yes, with some reservations given that so much of the informational content remains unclear. However, what isn't known is the relationship between the portion of the economy that was recorded on tablets and the portion that was not. The society was undoubtedly quite unequal, but it is not known whether these are fully dependent laborers receiving all of their food from a bureaucratic system or temporary corvée laborers being paid (poorly) in kind, or more likely some mixture.

hrant's picture

Wow, thanks for going to the trouble! Very educational.

Concerning the "corruption" of the script, I'm guessing it was used mostly internally, so people just did their own thing deviating from whatever pseudo-standard there was. But I'm not sure this would have contributed to its disappearance because there was probably no great need to share those documents anyway.


DTY's picture

Very good point. These receipts and invoices were probably meant to be read by only two people, the writer and a known recipient. That kind of system can tolerate a lot of idiosyncratic variation.

And just to add a more typographic element to the thread, Denise Schmandt-Besserat has argued that the numeral system that formed the original core of both proto-cuneiform and proto-Elamite originated from pressing counting tokens into clay. For example, you would indicate "4 sheep" by pressing a "sheep" token into the clay four times. If conveying written information by stamping an object repeatedly counts as typography in some very general sense, you could then argue that writing is derived from typography just as much as the other way around :)

oldnick's picture

If conveying written information by stamping an object repeatedly counts as typography in some very general sense, you could then argue that writing is derived from typography just as much as the other way around :)

That’s an excellent point. OTOH, Gutenberg (or others) pretty much made typography synonymous with mass production…

ztech's picture

Proto-Elamite seems unrelated to Linear Elamite, and it is quite possible that the term is a misnomer. There also tends to be a bias against the idea that Susa was crucial to the development of writing (if not a bias against the idea, that Susa was just a colony of Uruk). As you mention writing may have evolved in parallel through Mesopotamia. Proto-Elamite dates to only 100 years after Sumerian. Such a difference is close enough to be explained by contamination, or limited sampling. And it is difficult to understand, as this article points out, why a civilization (Susa) would not just adopt the Sumerian script, and decide to re-invent writing, so to speak. For that reason alone, it may be more likely that the development of writing occured in Susa, and at some early phase of it's development, the ideographical form of writing made it's way to Sumer. We have evidence for the development of writing in Susa: The earliest proto-elamite is ideagraphical, and almost immediately afterwards, appears to take a more syllabic form. One would expect if the relationship was reverse, if writing was invented in 'Sumer' (assuming Susa wasn't part of Sumer), than the transition to syllabic form would not occur so shortly afterwards - especially among a random, preliterate, population. But if we assume that Susanian's were experimenting with writing, than the transition can be explained a lot easier. It is also important to note that the oldest counting tokens and cylindrical seals to date, which were crucial to the development of writing, were found at Susa.

Nick Shinn's picture

Interesting use of a 3-D camera to digitize a printed object in high resolution. That would be awesome for inspecting Incunabula or Bodoni's Manuale, online.

ztech's picture

It's also worth noting that it is completely misleading, if not completely wrong, to say that lowland Iran (in addition to Susa), is not generally considered part of Mesopotamia. The ongoing perception among scholars is that because Western Iran was in the sphere of influence of Ubaid culture (which lead to the Sumerian civilization), it just an extension of Mesopotamia (See: Beyond the Ubaid,

hrant's picture

Where's "lowland Iran"? Unless it's quite close to the Tigris, it can't actually be considered "between the two rivers" (Mesopotamia) can it?


John Hudson's picture

Although Mesopotamia means 'between the rivers', it refers to entire river system and its valleys, which formed an agricultural region. I presume Zada's 'lowland Iran' refers to the area to the southwest of the Zagros mountains and to the Iranian river systems that feed into the lower Mesopotamian system. The area of southwestern Iran around Ahvaz is geographically within the broader Mesopotamian region.

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