Iranian 4,000-Year-Old Ancient Language Decoded But Questions Remain
Linguistics experts have been trying to decipher and translate an enigmatic type of ancient language known as Linear Elamite for more than 100 years. This writing system was used by people who lived in what is now southern Iran between 2,300 and 1,800 BC, and before its rediscovery in 1903 it had been completely lost in time.
In a paper just published in the German journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie (Journal of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology), a team of scholars claims to have deciphered significant sections of the ancient language’s script from the mere 40 examples of Linear Elamite that have been recovered from various Iranian archaeological sites over the past 120 years. However, this announcement has been greeted with a fair amount of skepticism among academics who specialize in the area of ancient language decoding.
It isn’t often that a published article in a peer-reviewed journal provokes controversy. But at least for now, the scholars who say they’ve decoded the true meaning of the Linear Elamite script are not getting the welcome reception they might have hoped for or expected.
The list of known Linear Elamite characters shown here suggests that as ancient languages go Linear Elamite isn’t easy or obvious. (Frank, Carl (1881-1945) / Public domain)
Ancient Language Decoded: The “New” Linear Elamite Solution
The first artifacts engraved with Linear Elamite script were unearthed during a 1903 excavation project at an ancient acropolis in Susa, Iran.
A group of French archaeologists found several tablets that contained words or symbols written in an unfamiliar ancient language. This previously undiscovered form of writing was believed to have been related to another ancient language from the region known as Proto-Elamite, and consequently the new writing was called Linear Elamite. Later research suggested there was only a slight connection between Proto-Elamite and the rediscovered language, but by that time its name had become fixed and could not realistically be changed.
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The meaning of Linear Elamite script is not a complete mystery. Over the years other academics have decoded a few pieces of the existing Linear Elamite inscriptions, and in fact the scholars responsible for the new study relied on these translations to guide them in their work.
To move beyond these partial and limited successes, the team of experts led by French archaeologist François Desset, who currently teaches at the University of Tehran, analyzed eight well-preserved Linear Elamite inscriptions found on silver beakers, seeking to interpret their complete meaning. They did this by comparing the ancient script with cuneiform texts that date to the same time period and were written with a previously deciphered Middle Eastern script.
The cuneiform writings contained the names of rulers, listings of their titles, and descriptions of what they accomplished. The scholars knew from previous deciphering results that the eight Linear Elamite scripts referred to some of the same rulers, and they hoped to translate the Linear Elamite samples further using the cuneiform texts as their template. In other words, since they knew what the cuneiform texts said in their totality, they could proceed under the assumption that the Linear Elamite script would say much the same thing.
Regularized Linear Elamite characters as interpreted by Desset et al. in 2022. (पाटलिपुत्र / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Using this comparative methodology, Desset and his team claim to have uncovered the true meanings of an impressive number of signs and symbols in the ancient language.
There are more than 300 separate Linear Elamite signs representing different vocal sounds, they wrote in their research paper, and they say that because of their study only 3.7 percent of the Linear Elamite symbols remain undeciphered.
The team plans to publish more translations of texts in the future, but for now they have only released some of what they’ve been able to decipher. One short text they’ve chosen to publish says the following:
"Puzur-Sušinak, king of Awan, Insušinak [an ancient Iranian deity] loves him." This stanza also states that anyone who refuses to accept the authority of Puzur-Sušinak should "be destroyed."
The individual referenced here, who is also known as Puzur-Inshushinak, was the monarch of the ancient kingdom of Elam around the year 2,100 BC. Elam was located in the western and southwestern parts of modern-day Iran, and the language known as Linear Elamite was apparently widely spoken within this kingdom.
Clay cone covered with Linear Elamite text, dated to the reign of Puzur-Inshushinak, who was king of Elam around 2100 BC, which is part of the Louvre Museum collection. (Zunkir / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Jury is Still Out
So why are the results of this deciphering study being met with a skeptical response?
Some of the problems with this research were raised by Jacob Dahl, an Assyriology professor from Oxford University who was asked to comment on the claims of François Desset and his team.
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Professor Dahl told Live Science that he disagreed with the new study’s assertion that Linear Elamite and Proto-Elamite did in fact have a close connection, despite the current consensus that they are not closely related (Dahl has worked with Proto-Elamite and is considered an expert on the subject). It isn’t known exactly how the scholars may have used the research into Proto-Elamite to guide their inferences, but if they used them in any significant way this could be a problem.
Dahl further questioned their judgment in using Linear Elamite inscriptions found at the Iranian Bronze Age site of Konar Sandal as part of their analysis. Many scholars believe those particular inscriptions are forgeries, and since the Desset’s team relied on the work done on them to some extent it could have added a misleading or distorting element to their translation efforts.
Other concerns have also been raised about the eight scripts the scholars chose to translate. Seven came from the private collection of an individual named Houshang Mahboubian, who is the son of a famous Iranian archaeologist who is said to have unearthed the inscribed artifacts during excavations in the 1920s. Houshang Mahboubian has no actual documentation to prove this, and while attempts to authenticate these artifacts have found no signs of forgery the lack of proof of their origin remains a legitimate concern.
The other artifact included in the study came from the private collection of Norwegian businessman Martin Schøyen, who is currently trying to regain possession of the object from the Norwegian police. This inscribed silver beaker was impounded by the authorities in August 2021, based on a report from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo that suggests Schøyen may have acquired the object illegally on the antiquities black market.
Adding another layer of confusion and uncertainty to this story is the behavior of François Desset, who has been identified as the new study’s lead author. Despite this designation, he has so far refused to comment to the media about either about his team’s claims or about the doubts raised by critics. This is a notable change, since Desset did show a willingness to speak about his ongoing research in the past.
The new study may in fact represent a great leap forward in the comprehension of the ancient Linear Elamite language. But more research will be needed to confirm its results, and until it is forthcoming skepticism is unlikely to die away.
Top image: This clay tablet, part of the Louvre Museum collection, covered in an ancient language is actually one of the few known Linear Elamite texts, which a research team has claimed to have deciphered almost completely. Source: Zunkir / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Nathan Falde