Tablet with numeric signs and script. From Teppe Sialk, Susa, Uruk period (3200 BC to 2700 BC). Department of Oriental Antiquities, Louvre.

Tablet with numeric signs and script. From Teppe Sialk, Susa, Uruk period (3200 BC to 2700 BC). Department of Oriental Antiquities, Louvre.

Attempts to decipher the 5000 year-old proto-Elamite writing system have so far rendered little results, much of it still consisting a troublesome puzzle for the scientists studying it. After using a high-tech imaging technique that has rendered the symbols in incredible details, scientists are now finally confident they’re nearing a breakthrough.

The Elamite civilization spanned from 3200 BC to 2700 BC in modern day Iran and at one time it’s people where contemporaries with the oldest civilization in the world, the Sumerian Civilization. Elamite scribes used a script largely undeciphered to this day, however new efforts from behalf of University of Oxford and Southampton scientist may finally render palpable results.

A dome of 76 lights was used to capture a virtual image of the Proto-Elamite tablets, complete with never encountered detail.

A dome of 76 lights was used to capture a virtual image of the Proto-Elamite tablets, complete with never encountered detail. (C) Dahl

The researchers devised a dome like structure comprised of a high resolution camera positioned in the inner top of the dome, and 76 lights radially disposed, directed towards the base of the dome. Using the Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), as it’s been dubbed, the scientists took 76 photos of a sample, with one of the lights individually light for each shoot. After combining the 76 photographs, the difference between light and shadow highlighted never before seen details.

“I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough,” says Jacob Dahl, fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and director of the Ancient World Research Cluster.

Consider how often you’ve misread the letter “m” from the latter “n” or “I” from “l”. Studying Proto-Elamite script is exponentially more difficult to interpret since it’s comprised of a myriad of symbols, especially if you consider the fact that the excavated tablets are 5000 years old. So far, the team of researchers have deciphered 1,200 separate signs, but Dahl says that after more than 10 years of study much remains unknown, even such basic words as “cow” or “cattle”.

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An extinct writing

Why is Proto-Elamite so hard to decode in the first place? Well, unlike other ancient writing systems, there aren’t any by-lingual texts about, which would had lessened the work load significantly. Also, atypical of other scripts, Proto-Elamite doesn’t use individual symbols to represent things, but instead uses a syllabary system. For instance,  ‘cat’ would not be represented by a symbol depicting the animal, like in Egyptian hieroglyphic,  but by symbols for the otherwise unrelated words ‘ca’ and ‘at,'” Dahl said.

What made decryption efforts really nerve-wracking, however, is the lack of education of the Elamite scholars. There seems to have been an unusual absence of scholarship, with no evidence of any lists of symbols or learning exercises for scribes to preserve the accuracy of the writing. May symbols are simply invented or misused, while others are borrowed from the Mesopotamians, such as the numerical signs and their systems and symbols for objects like sheep, goats, cereals.

“The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless.”

It’s no wonder than, that the Proto-Elamite script vanished in a mere few hundred years. “This is probably the world’s first case of a collapse of knowledge because of the under-funding of education,” Dahl said.

All the  images are now available online for free public access on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative website.

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