Technology Helping to Decipher Proto-Elamite Script

A technology called the Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) System for Ancient Documentary Artifacts has brought scientists closer to cracking the world’s oldest undeciphered writings.

Tablet Sb06392: account of five fields and their yields, with total on reverse, and seal of the ruler(?) of Susa; excavated at Susa in the early 20th century; Louvre Museum, Paris (Image courtesy of Dr Jacob L. Dahl, University of Oxford)

The proto-Elamite writing system was used for a brief period around 3,100 BC over a very large area in what is now Iran. It is preserved on more than 1,500 clay tablets found at the archaeological sites of Susa, Malyan, Anshan, Tepe Yahya, Shahr-i-Shokhta, Sialk and Jiroft.

Scientists from the University of Oxford and the University of Southampton have used RTI to capture highly detailed images of some 1,100 proto-Elamite tablets held in the vaults of the Louvre Museum in Paris, and made them available online for free public access on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative website.

“The Louvre collection of early writing from Mesopotamia and Iran is incredibly important – it contains the first substantial law code, the first record of a battle between kings, the first propaganda, and the first literature. Being able to put these documents online would be a great achievement,” said Dr Jacob L. Dahl of the Oxford University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies, a co-leader of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.

By viewing images of the proto-Elamite tablets, and by sharing them with a community of scholars worldwide, the scientists hope to crack the script and for all.

“The quality of the images captured is incredible. And it is important to remember that you cannot decipher a writing system without having reliable images because you will, for example, overlook differences barely visible to the naked eye which may have meaning. Consider for example not being able to distinguish the letter i from the letter t.”

RIT comprises a dome with 76 lights and a camera positioned at the top of the dome. The manuscript is placed in the center of the dome, whereafter 76 photos are taken each with one of the 76 lights individually lit. In post-processing all images are joined so that the researcher can move the light across the surface of the digital image and use the difference between light and shadow to highlight never-before-seen details.

I have spent the last ten years trying to decipher the proto-Elamite writing system and, with this new technology, I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough,” Dr Dahl said.

“Looking at contemporary and later writing systems, we would expect to see proto-Elamite use only symbols to represent things, but we think they also used a syllabary – for example ‘cat’ would not be represented by a symbol depicting the animal but by symbols for the otherwise unrelated words ‘ca’ and ‘at.”

“Half of the signs used in this way seem to have been invented ex novo for the sounds they represent – if this turns out to be the case, it would transform fundamentally how we understand early writing where phonetecism is believed to have been developed through the so-called rebus principle (a modern example would be for example “I see you”, written with the three signs ‘eye’, the ‘sea’, and a ‘ewe’).”

Tablet Sb04823: receipt of 5 workers(?) and their monthly(?) rations, with subscript and seal depicting animal in boat; excavated at Susa in the early 20th century; Louvre Museum, Paris (Image courtesy of Dr Jacob L. Dahl, University of Oxford)

Some features of the Proto-Elamite writing system are already known. The scribes had loaned – or potentially shared – some signs from/with Mesopotamia, such as the numerical signs and their systems and signs for objects like sheep, goats, cereals and some others. Nevertheless, 80-90% of the signs remain undeciphered.

“The writing system died out after only a couple centuries,” Dr Dahl said. “It was used in administration and for agricultural records but it was not used in schools – the lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless as an administrative system. Eventually, the system was abandoned after some two hundred years.”

‘This is probably the world’s first case of a collapse of knowledge because of the under-funding of education!’ Dr Dahl concluded.


Bibliographic information: Jacob L. Dahl. Complex Graphemes in Proto-Elamite. Cuneiform Digital Library Journal 2005:3; ISSN 1540-8779

Jacob L. Dahl. Proto-Elamite Sign Frequencies. Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin 2002:1; ISSN 1540-8760