Related Scripts

Quick Facts
LocationWest Asia > Mesopotamia
Time3300 BCE to 500 BCE

Before the great Achaemenid Persian Empire of the 5th century BCE, the Elamites were the most influential people to hold dominion over the regions east of Mesopotamia, in what is now southwestern Iran.

The development of writing in Elam paralleled that in Sumer. From as early as the 8th millenium BCE, clay tokens of different shapes were used to represent commodities such as grain, livestock, alcohol, and manufactured goods for economic record-keeping and transactions. And like the rest of Mesopotamia, by the late 4th millenium BCE clay tokens were being stored inside bullae, oblong or spherical clay envelopes stamped with seal impressions, which most likely indicated the owners or contents of the tokens inside the envelopes. Quickly thereafter, marks were impressed into the surface of the bullae to count number of tokens inside, thus marking the appearance of a numerical system. Soon clay tokens were completely left out of the bullae, and so completing the transition to a purely abstract representation of quantities.

At the beginning of the 3rd millenium BCE, the written tradition in Sumer diverged from that of its contemporaries in Mesopotamia. Along with changes in the script, the archaeological record also indicates changes in material culture, as reflected in new architectural style and ceramic technology that bore closer resemblance to cultures of the Iranian plateau rather than Mesopotamian traditions. It is possible that a new people migrated into this area, although one cannot completely discount the whole-hearted adoption of a new culture.

Whatever the reason, a new script tradition appeared in Elam at approximately 2900 BCE. Called proto-Elamite, this script represented the earliest native writing system in Elam. Visually, proto-Elamite is quite unlike the cuneiform script prevalent in other parts of Mesopotamia, and instead is composed of lines and circles. All proto-Elamite texts can be demonstrated to be accounting records, as numbers are preceeded by one or more non-numerical signs, which were logograms and maybe even syllabograms. However, this is about all we know about proto-Elamite, as the script remains undeciphered due to lack of a sizeable corpus and any bilingual text.

The following is an example of a proto-Elamite accounting tablet. The direction of reading is right-to-left, then downward when the end of line is reached.

By the latter half of the 3rd millenium BCE, the proto-Elamite script had evolved into the Linear Elamite script. The discovery of a bilingual text, with one version in Linear Elamite and the other in Old Akkadian, in 1905 at the Elamite capital of Susa made it possible to partially decipher Linear Elamite. The system is discovered to frequently make use of syllabograms, with logograms sprinkled in. The following is the Elamite portion of the bilingual tablet, which is attributed to the Elamite king Puzur-Inshushinak around the 22th century BCE.

Like cuneiform scripts at roughly the same time, the set of syllabograms contains both signs to represent consonant-vowel syllables and signs for vowel-consonant syllables. However, not all readings presented are certain. The same sign is used to end a CVC syllable where the vowel can be either /a/ or /u/, so it is hard to tell the exact vowel for this sign. The most problematic of the readings on this table is the phrase "son of Shimpishhuk". From the Old Akkadian version, scholars know that this phrase is in the text, but there is disagreement on how the signs should be read. Another school of thought states that only the first seven signs form this phrase, leaving the last three out, and the sequence should instead be read as "shi-in-pish-hu-uk shak-ik".

Problems of this kind persist in Linear Elamite epigraphy, and there is no remedy in the forseeable future. A basic requirement for deciphering a writing system is a large corpus of texts, but only few examples of Linear Elamite texts have been found so far. Another problem is the poor understanding of the Elamite language, which is unrelated to any other language in the world, and also suffers from being less studied than other Mesopotamian languages like Sumerian and Akkadian.

The native Elamite writing system would not endure, as no other examples of Linear Elamite date past the 22th century BCE. And due to the tremendous prestige of Mesopotamian languages and scripts, almost all texts from Elam for the next thousand years were either Sumerian or Babylonian. For 900 years, the Elamite literary tradition remained silent. Only starting from the 13th century BCE onward did the Elamite language reappear in the archaeological record, but at this point in time the Elamite had borrowed and adapted the cuneiform script to write their language. Unlike their Mesopotamian neighbors which had more than 700 signs, the Elamite cuneiform only contained 145 signs, where 113 were syllabograms, twenty five were logograms, and seven were determinatives.

The most famous Elamite cuneiform inscription comes from the rock inscriptions at Behistun, carved by the order of the Persian king Darius I of the Achaemenid dynasty, around the 5th century BCE. At this time, Elamite, Old Persian, and Aramaic, were the "official" languages used in the Persian court and bureaucracy, while older Mesopotamian languages such as Babylonian and Sumerian continued to be used in literary, religious, and scientific circles. As such, Elamite appeared along side with Babylonian and Old Persian on the Behistun inscriptions. The following is an excerpt of the Elamite text.

While important during the early history of the Persian empire, Elamite gradually faded from history after the 5th century BCE as Aramaic became increasingly important as the "international" language of the Persian empire. As such, Elamite has remained an enigma even today.

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