Decoding Proto-Elamite

Map showing Elam (via Wikipedia)
Map showing Elam (via Wikipedia)

In September 1924, an article titled First Light on a Long-forgotten civilization: New Discoveries of an Unknown Prehistoric Past in India by John Marshall was published in the Illustrated London News. The article contained news about the excavations at Harappa and Mohenjo-daro along with a series of photographs. The magazine asked the readers to help in understanding the script and one of the responses came from an Assyriologist who wrote that the seals looked similar to the ones found at Susa, the capital of Elam. The proto-Elamite tablets were dated to the third millennium BCE and belonged to a civlization located in South-Western Iran.
Now, like the Harappan script, the proto-Elamite script too has not been deciphered, but there have been few articles which suggest that there could be a breakthrough soon.  They have new technology which helps them create reliable images.

The reflectance transformation imaging technology system designed by staff in the Archaeological Computing Research Group and Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton comprises a dome with 76 lights and a camera positioned at the top of the dome. The manuscript is placed in the centre of the dome, whereafter 76 photos are taken each with one of the 76 lights individually lit. In post-processing the 76 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.[Technology helping to crack oldest undeciphered writing system]

There are some ideas about the script and what they could have represented

Some features of the 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.’

These images are now available for you to look and decode.

  1. The Lost River by Michel Danino