Mysterious Script of Biblical Elam Is Deciphered After 5,000 Years

Ancient silver beakers from Iran may hold the key to deciphering a script that has been baffling researchers for over a century

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The bilingual Linear Elamite and Akkadian inscription, parts of which were recently deciphered. European scholars tried to identify the names of kings and deities in both scripts.
The bilingual Linear Elamite and Akkadian inscription, parts of which were recently deciphered. European scholars tried to identify the names of kings and deities in both scripts.Credit: Mission archologique en Iran
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Ancient silver beakers from Iran may have just provided the key to a 120-year-old mystery going back 5,000 years. Headed by a French archaeologist from Tehran University, a group of European scholars has deciphered the symbols of an ancient script dubbed “Linear Elamite,” deepening scholarly understanding of the Kingdom of Elam. One of the oldest cultures in the world, it existed in Persia from the third millennium B.C.E. until it was conquered by the Persian Empire, which it assimilated into in the sixth century BCE.

The story begins in 1903, when French archaeologists excavated at ancient Susa, known in the Book of Esther as Shushan, in southwestern Iran. The excavations unearthed inscriptions in an unknown script. Later, it emerged that it was used by the Elamite culture in today’s southern Iran. Over the 20th century, researchers were able to decipher a small number of the Linear Elamite script’s symbols after a bilingual text was discovered written in Linear Elamite and Akkadian, which is a known script. Further efforts to decipher the inscriptions were stymied.

The current breakthrough was reported in a scientific article published in a German-language journal of Assyriology and the archaeology of the Near East, published in Berlin and considered a key platform in the field. One of the scholars involved in the research, the Assyriologist Prof. Gianni Marchesi of the University of Bologna, Italy, explained to Haaretz how the script was deciphered:

The decipherment of the Linear Elamite script

“The Elamites used two different types of writing; the indigenous Linear Elamite script and the foreign cuneiform writing that had been imported from Mesopotamia.” Since cuneiform is well known to scholars, by reading the Elamite texts written in cuneiform, they were able to learn the names of Elamite kings and deities, Marchesi said.

The next stage was to examine texts in Linear Elamite to try to identify the names of those kings and deities, explained Dr. Peter Zilberg, of the department of Archaeology and Near Eastern Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“How could we do it?” Marchesi elaborated: "with a pinch of common sense, using the brain," I would say. For instance, there was a king named Puzur-Sushinak and a god named Insushinak: the two names partially overlap (their final parts coincide). This fact made it relatively easy to identify the sequences of signs of Linear Elamite corresponding to these two names; we just needed to find two sequences ending with the same group of signs…. So, from these two names we obtained the phonetic values of nine signs…which then could be used to identify other names and obtain additional phonetic values,” Marchesi said.

But how did they know for certain that these were the same names? There are only about 40 Linear Elamite inscriptions known in the world. To make sure they were comparing similar texts, the scholars selected Linear-Elamite texts that were likely to have been dedicatory inscriptions to Elamite kings and deities whose meanings were known in cuneiform.

The inscriptions in Linear Elamite were identified by Francois Desset, a French archaeologist in Iran, on beakers that found their way to a private collection in London to which he was given access.

Based on various tests, Desset posited that the vessels came from royal burial sites. He compared the texts inscribed on them to texts in Elamite written in cuneiform and on similar vessels. The assumption was that these two groups of texts would include dedications to the same rulers or have common elements (nouns, titles and nicknames) and similar expressions, the article in the German journal stated. The assumption was proven correct.

“A second step in the decipherment consisted in trying to identify, in Linear Elamite texts, not only proper nouns but also a number of phrases, clauses, and even sentences in the Elamite language that we knew from the Elamite texts written in cuneiform, under the assumption (proven true) that the two corpora of texts (Linear Elamite and cuneiform) should share the same phraseology,” Marchesi told Haaretz.

With painstaking work, the scholars were able to identify 72 symbols in Linear Elamite, which is believed to have between 80 and 110 symbols. “Hats off to them,” said Hebrew University Assyriologist Prof. Nathan Wasserman. “This was not ‘bingo’ nor the deciphering of a code in a romantic way, when suddenly everything becomes clear. As is often the case in the ancient world, it is about step after step,” Wasserman added.

Silver cup from Marvdasht, Iran, with a Linear Elamite inscription from the time of Kutik-Inshushinak. National Museum of Iran.Credit: Zereshk

According to scholars, Linear Elamite script is an important milestone in the development of script and languages worldwide. While cuneiform and hieroglyphics were common in Mesopotamia and Egypt, symbols representing whole words (logograms) were widely used. The Elamite script is basically phonetic, that is, its symbols represent vowels and consonants. Scholars consider it the most ancient alphabet of its kind, which is closer to the alphabet we have known since 1100 B.C.E. thanks to the Phoenicians.

Wasserman explained that the fact that a language of this type was found “at such an early stage – the end of the third millennium and beginning of the second millennium B.C.E. – is a major innovation in the world of languages altogether.” According to Wasserman, thanks to the new research “we have increased our ability to understand a very key culture in the Ancient Near East, about which we did not know much.”

Zilberg added that deciphering Linear Elamite script is fascinating in terms of the development of script and language, because this was a local, independent script that was “simply erased by other writing systems that swept the Ancient Near East.”

Still, a great deal of work lies ahead. Elamite was an independent language that is not associated with other languages, and so we cannot know how its words were pronounced, nor always understand their meaning. “When a language stands alone, it’s a difficult thing, because everything we know about it comes from the language itself,” Zilberg concluded.

“All the sisters or groups of this language disappeared, or didn’t board the script wagon in time,” Wasserman explained.

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