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Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 1

The writing of Elam, a neighbor of Sumer, one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, could not be deciphered to this day. However, the end of 2020 was marked by a breakthrough in Elam studies: French archaeologist François Dessay presented a deciphering of the Elamite Linear script used in the XXV-XIX centuries BC. e. Ilya Egorov, a specialist in comparative historical linguistics and an employee of the RANEPA, talks about who the Elamites are, what we know about their language and why the linear Elamite script was deciphered only now.

At the beginning of the story

The Elamite state existed from the third millennium to the 6th century BC. e., when all of its territory came under the rule of the Persian royal dynasty of the Achaemenids. Information about the Elamites has come down to us from Sumerian, Akkadian and Persian sources and from their own cuneiform texts. Now these sources have been supplemented by texts written in Linear Elamite script.

Elam was first mentioned in Sumerian clay tablets in the middle of the third millennium BC. e. The Sumerians designated this country with the sign NIM, which also meant ‘upper’. Elam does indeed lie on a higher ground compared to the main Sumerian cities. Susa, the capital of the Elamite state, was located in the foothills of the Zagros, east of the interfluve of the Tigris and Euphrates.

This is very close to the place where, as Samuel Kramer aptly put it, history began 

By the beginning of history, Kramer understood the beginning of written history, that is, the moment when written monuments appeared. Writing was invented in Sumer at the turn of the third and fourth millennia BC. e. A little later, a proto-Elamite letter appeared, from which, perhaps, the writing system that François Dessay deciphered came from. The corpus of proto-Elamite writing contains about 1,700 clay tablets, found mainly in Susa. They date back to 3100-2900 BC. e. Most of the tablets are kept in the Louvre storerooms. Now almost all of them have been digitized and are available on the Internet to everyone.

Proto-Elamite writing

In the strict sense, proto-Elamite writing remains undeciphered, that is, it has not yet been possible to ascribe to signs (most of which are rather abstract) concrete meanings and to understand how these texts should have sounded. However, we have a general idea of ​​what is written on these plates. In structure, they are similar to the Sumerian proto-cuneiform tablets from Uruk, containing household records.

A typical proto-Elamite plaque is designed roughly like a modern cashier’s check

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 2
Tablet Sb 15166, oriented as the scribe held it. Front side with body text on the right. On the left is the reverse side with the amount of property and the imprint of a cylindrical seal. Photo: CDLI project

They began to write in the upper right corner. First there was a headline that indicated the owner of the property. A list of this property followed. Each position in it was arranged like this: the name of the object, then some unit of measurement and quantity. When the line ended, they wrote on the next one from left to right, and after it – again from right to left. 

This direction of writing is called bustrofedon. The lines were separated from each other by a line. If the list needed to be continued on the reverse side, then the plate was turned over along the vertical axis. At the end of the list, the amount was calculated. For this, the plate was turned over along the horizontal axis relative to the front side. The back was sometimes stamped… So that life does not seem like honey to an uninitiated reader, it is customary to publish proto-Elamite tablets rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise.

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 3
Layout of the text. The plate is oriented in the same way as in modern publications. Source: Englund, Robert K., The State of Decipherment of Proto-Elamite // The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004. P. 123

What language was behind the proto-Elamite script is still unclear. Moreover, it is unclear whether it is even worthwhile to correlate the proto-Elamite writing with any language. After all, here we are dealing with a record of an account rather than a text in the full sense of the word. The subject of the account and the unit of measure are indicated by pictograms followed by a number. This is most similar to how we indicate the quantity of the required product opposite the icon with its image in the online store.

Monuments of linear Elamite writing, in contrast to proto-Elamite tablets, already represent what can be called texts and read in the more familiar sense of the word. The earliest of these date back to about 2500-2400 BC. e., and the last 1900-1800 years BC. e. These are mainly monumental inscriptions, inscriptions on clay tablets and cones, and inscriptions on metal vessels of the Gunaga. The latter ultimately played a key role in decryption.

How to decipher ancient writing?

Speaking about decryption, first of all, it is necessary to distinguish between two situations: decoding of writing and decoding of the language. It so happens that we already know the written language, but the language is unknown. This is, for example, the case of the Hittite language.

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The Hittite texts are written in a variation of Akkadian cuneiform that was read in the middle of the 19th century. Since the texts could be easily “spoken”, it was not too difficult to understand that the language belongs to the Indo-European family. After this was established, the meaning of many words began to be derived from the meanings of related words in other Indo-European languages. 

An important role was played by the fact that Akkadian cuneiform, in addition to syllabic signs, uses ideograms, that is, hieroglyphs denoting not some sound or syllable, but a concept. Fortunately for the researchers, Hittite scribes also inserted many Akkadian words.

The meaning of the remaining words can often be guessed from the context, just like we do in a foreign language lesson

It’s another matter when the writing itself is unknown.

And in that case , it’s a good idea to define the type of letter first.

Quite reliably, this can be established by the number of characters:

  • 20–40 characters – an alphabetical letter, where the character corresponds to a phoneme;
  • 50–100 signs – syllabic writing, where the sign corresponds to the syllable;
  • 100-600 characters – mixed type: syllabic or alphabetical writing using hieroglyphs (logograms and ideograms). In such a system, syllabic or letter signs are much more frequent than hieroglyphic;
  • > 600 – hieroglyphic writing, where the sign corresponds to a word (logogram) or a more general concept (ideogram).

If you are very lucky, then by looking at the alphabetical or syllabic system, you can guess the language in which the text is written.

Here the analysis of frequency combinations and their variants comes to the rescue. So, in deciphering the Mycenaean Linear B, the key was the assumption that the texts were written in Greek. They guessed this, noting that behind the variations of the chains of symbols, you can see the Greek inflectional paradigms.

The most important step towards the successful deciphering of ancient writing is the identification in the text of some personal names or geographical names known from other sources. Since proper names tend to sound similar in different languages, they help to easily establish the phonetic meaning of written signs.

Jean-François Champollion made a breakthrough in the study of Egyptian writing by identifying cartouches with the names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra on the Rosetta Stone. Michael Ventris found place names in tablets with Linear B. Friedrich Grotefend was able to decipher the Persian cuneiform due to the fact that the Behistun inscription contained a list of kings known from the works of Herodotus.

The presence of parallel texts in other languages ​​greatly simplifies decryption. Monuments containing both the original text and its translation are called bilinguals.

If the translation is accurate, then deciphering turns into a not very difficult linguistic task, like those that high school students can cope with in a few hours at the Olympiad in linguistics.

The already mentioned Behistun inscription is an extremely important monument. It is a parallel trilingual inscription in Old Persian, Akkadian and Elamite in cuneiform transmission.

So, deciphering writing is likely to be successful if at least two of the three conditions are met:

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  • understand what language the texts are written in and find known related languages;
  • identify personal names;
  • find bilingual texts.

In the case of the Elamite Linear script, all three conditions had already been met, so that complete decryption remained a matter of time.

Elamite language

The assumption that the inscriptions made in the linear Elamite script reflect the Elamite language has remained only a hypothesis, although it is quite reliable. Indeed, the Akkadian version of one bilingual text mentions the king of Elam, Puzur-Inshushinak, so it is logical to think that the second language of these texts is Elamite. Now this guess has been confirmed.

The hypothesis that the mysterious inscriptions were made in the Elamite language gave optimism to the decoders. After all, Elamite is already well known.

The fact is that the Elamites used not only their own original script, but also the Akkadian cuneiform. Akkadian cuneiform was used in ancient times in the Middle East as widely as the Latin alphabet in modern Europe. In addition to the Elamite and Akkadian language proper, various modifications of the Akkadian cuneiform were used for writing in Hittite, Luwian, Hurrian, Urartian and some other languages.

Thanks to the cuneiform texts and the Elamite-Akkadian bilinguals, the Elamite language was learned well. There is a two-volume dictionary, a small but generally satisfactory grammar and a few short essays, so that reading Elamite texts is not difficult.

It has not yet been possible to establish the linguistic relatives of the Elamite language. It is considered an isolate .

There are two hypotheses about his family ties. David McAlpin compared Elamite to the Dravidian languages ​​spoken in southern India, eastern Iran and Pakistan. Czech linguist Vaclav Blazek – with the  languages ​​of the Afrasian macrofamily, which includes Semitic languages ​​in the Middle East, Egyptian (Ancient Egyptian and Coptic), Berber, Cushite, Omotic, and Chadian in northern Africa. 

After re-analyzing both hypotheses, Georgy Starostin came to the conclusion that McAlpin and Blazhek failed to show a close connection of the Elamites with the Dravids or Afrasians, but the Elamite can still be connected with these families on a deeper level. Proof of such a distant relationship remains a matter for the future.

What is already known about the Elamite Linear script?

By 2020, only 40 fairly short inscriptions are known. They can identify 258 characters. This number speaks rather of the mixed nature of the writing: syllabary and logograms. For example, in the Mycenaean linear letter B, comparable in the number of characters, there are 87 syllabic characters and 120 logograms. 

However, it is assumed that some of the 258 Elamite signs are actually variants of each other. Although not many monuments are known, they are scattered over an area of ​​about 1000 kilometers from Susa to Konar-Sandal and span several centuries. In such a situation, geographical and chronological variations should have arisen. François Dessay suggests that about a hundred characters were used at a time in one place. And this may already be a purely syllabic letter.

Before François Dessay, two attempts were made to decrypt. Walter Hinz in the 1960s thought he knew the meaning of almost 60 characters. Piero Merigi in the 1970s believed that it is possible to reliably speak about the meaning of 30 characters. François Dessay made more or less reliable conclusions about 13 signs in 2018.

The starting point for all decryptions is the bilingual Akkadian-Elamite inscription with a mention of the king Puzur-Inshushinak. There are ten more inscriptions where a string of symbols is found that can be identified with the name of this king. These ten inscriptions are grouped into three independent texts: the first one exists in four versions (inscriptions A, B, C, E), the second – in three (inscriptions F, G, H) and the third – in one (inscription I).

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Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 4
Texts mentioning Puzur-Inshushinak. Source: Francois Desset, Linear Elamite writing // The Elamite world / eds. J. Alvarez-Mon, G.-P. Basello et Y. Wicks. Routledge World Series, Taylor and Francis, Abington. P. 201

The chain of characters in a gray frame under the number 2 in all three texts denotes the name of the king and reads pu-zu-r-šu-ši-na-k. In the text A / B / C / E under the number 1, apparently, there should be the name of the god, from which the name of the king is derived and which is translated from Akkadian ‘The Secret of Inshushinak’. 

The chain under the number 5 contains two already known characters – ši and in. This suggests that it should be read ši-in-piš-huk. Shinpishkhuk, as follows from cuneiform sources, is the father of Puzur-Inshushinak. The chains numbered 3 and 4 are most likely the titles of Puzur-Inshushinak.

In 2018, François Dessay began to study the body of the metal vessels of the Gunaga. He noticed that the texts on them are of a formulaic nature, that is, they consist of stable blocks with a small variable part. The inscriptions on the eight vessels begin with the same symbol (marked in green in the figure), followed by a variable part, most likely the name.

 Next, the title is indicated (in the figure it is indicated in blue). François Dessay noticed that ten vessels in the title contain the same chain of signs that followed the name Puzur-Inshushinak (in the figure below – under the number 6, in the figure above – under the number 3). He decided that it meant ‘king’ and began to select the names of the Elamite kings.

 It is known that one name must begin with ši (the string under the number 2), and the other must contain r in the middle (the string under the number 3). And these must be kings who lived between 2050 and 1800 BC e. – this is how the vessels are dated. Only one candidate was found: Shilhaha (chain 2) and Ebarat II (chain 3). So the meaning of some more symbols became known, and François Dessay opened the road to complete deciphering.

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 5
Comparison of texts on the vessels of the Gunaga. Source: Desset F., Nine Linear Elamite Texts Inscribed on Silver “Gunagi” Vessels (X, Y, Z, F ‘, H’, I ‘, J’, K ‘and L’): New Data on Linear Elamite Writing and the History of the Sukkalmaḫ Dynasty // Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies Volume 56 (2). 2018

What was François Dessay doing in quarantine?

During the quarantine, Desse, along with three colleagues – Cambyz Tabibzade, Matthew Kervran and Jean-Pietro Basello – continued to explore the silver vessels of the Gunaga. They managed to establish that the cuneiform text on a vessel in honor of King Sive-Palar-Huhpak is very close to the text made in linear Elamite script on a vessel in honor of King Ittatu I.

In fact, they managed to find not even a bilingual, but a biggraphic text, that is, an inscription on the Siwe-Palar-Huhpaka vessel is practically a cuneiform transliteration of the inscription on the Ittatu I vessel. Thanks to this inscription, it was possible to carry out a complete decoding. 

The letter turned out to be completely phonetic, that is, the signs in it denote only syllables or individual sounds, and logograms or ideograms are not used.

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 6
A vessel with a cuneiform inscription mentioning Siwe-Palar-Huhpak (left) and a vessel with an inscription in Linear Elamite script mentioning Ittatu I (right). Source: The Mahboubian Collection

As evidence of the success of the decryption, François Dessay presented in a short talk the reading and translation of two texts written in Linear Elamite script. The inscription on the stone discovered in Susa and now stored in the Louvre turned out to be just the name and title of the king Puzur-Inshushinak. The inscription on the silver vessel is an initiatory formula. 

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 7
Photo and drawing of the letter E. Source: Alice Kober Gesellschaft für die Entzifferung antiker Schriftsysteme

‘Puzur-Shushinak, hatbak Suz, whisper of the people of Elam, (son of) Shinpishkhuk’.

Who are the Elamites and why the language of this ancient civilization was deciphered only now 8
Photo and drawing of Q lettering. Source: Alice Kober Gesellschaft für die Entzifferung antiker Schriftsysteme

‘Mistress Marapshsha , Shumar-Ash / su ,

(this) silver (vessel) I made. In the temple that will be named after me (for the glory of my name -?),

Khumshat, (because) I have humbly made an offering to you. ‘

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