This illustration shows a perforated stone with Elamite inscriptions from the Louvre collections. Wikimedia Commons.

Experts Claim to Have Deciphered a Mysterious Ancient Script

A mysterious writing system that is nearly as old as cuneiform but used a different set of symbols and that has remained undeciphered for centuries may have finally been deciphered.

Based on ancient silver vessels, the researchers propose a new method for decoding the Linear Elamite script, which contains 80 symbols written left to right in vertical columns.

Ancient writing systems are among the most difficult to crack.

The Rosetta Stone, which translated a Demotic decree (the language of everyday ancient Egyptians) into Greek and hieroglyphics, gave us an understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1799. Had a French soldier not stumbled across it by chance, we would have had a pretty difficult time understanding Egyptian writing. But even with the discovery of the precious stone, Jean-Francois Champollion spent over two decades trying to decipher the strange Egyptian symbols.

Among millennia-old scripts, only a few are unreadable. An obscure system used in what is now Iran might finally be deciphered thanks to a team of European scholars led by French archaeologist Francois Desset.

“This is one of the major archaeological discoveries of the last decades,” explains Massimo Vidale, an archaeologist at the University of Padua who was not involved in the research. “It was based on the same approach of Champollion’s breakthrough—identifying and reading phonetically the names of kings.”

Proto-Elamite, derived from Linear Elamite, was used between 2500 and 2220 BC and is named such because its registers are similar to Linear Cretan. Inscriptions on 40 documents from Susa, the ancient urban oasis and capital of Elam, a bustling society that was once one of the first to use written symbols, are the only indications of its existence. Only a partial decipherment of this writing had been accomplished.

Those circumstances have now changed, according to Desset, who gained access to an unusual collection of silver vases encircled with cuneiform and Linear Elamite script. They were excavated in the 1920s and sold to Western merchants, so their authenticity and provenance have been questioned. Nevertheless, analysis of the vessels revealed that they were ancient rather than modern forgeries.

This image depicts the 72 deciphered alpha-syllabic signs used in Linear Elamite's transliteration system. Image Credit: F. Desset.
This image depicts the 72 deciphered alpha-syllabic signs used in Linear Elamite’s transliteration system. Image Credit: F. Desset.

It is thought that they were discovered in a royal cemetery hundreds of kilometers southeast of Susa, dating back to around 2000 BC, as for their origin. According to experts, Elamite linear script was in use around this time.

The silver vases, according to the study, contain the oldest and most complete examples of Royal Elamite inscriptions in cuneiform script. They belonged to two different dynasties. According to Desset, the vessels were ‘the jackpot’ for deciphering Linear Elamite due to their juxtaposition of inscriptions.

Several cuneiform names, including those of well-known Elamite kings, could now be compared with symbols in Linear Elamite, including Šilhaha. The French professor used repeated symbols that are likely proper names to interpret the geometric shapes of the inscriptions. The verbs “made” and “gave” were also translated by him.

More than 96 percent of known linear Elamite symbols were able to be read by Desset and his co-authors. “Even if a complete decipherment cannot yet be claimed, mainly due to the limited number of inscriptions, we are not far away,” the experts write in their study.

These findings may shed light on a previously unknown society that flourished between ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley in the dawn of civilization if the researchers are right and their peers are debating the claim hotly. The paper describing the discovery was published in the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie.

As per experts, this analysis could also rewrite the evolution of writing itself.


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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