A mysterious 4,000-year-old writing system has finally been deciphered, study claims

Decrypted text: Anyone who rebels from Puzur-Sušinak should “be destroyed.”
Baba Tamim
This bull-head vessel spout is from Susa and dates back around 4,000 years. Linear Elamite was used in the same time and place.
This bull-head vessel spout is from Susa and dates back around 4,000 years. Linear Elamite was used in the same time and place.

Metropolitan Museum of Art 

Researchers claim to have deciphered Linear Elamite, a mysterious ancient writing system used between 2300 B.C. and 1800 B.C.

The study alleges success in decoding Linear Elamite, despite the fact that only about 40 known examples of the script remain today, according to a paper published in the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und Vorderasiatische Archäologie.

Over 300 Linear Elamite signs represent different sounds, such as a crescent-shaped sign that sounds like "pa," the research team wrote in the paper.

The team translated "Puzur-Sušinak, king of Awan, Insušinak [a deity] loves him" in the study, Live Science reported on Tuesday.

The text says that anyone who rebels from Puzur-Sušinak should "be destroyed." More translations of complete texts will be published in the future, said the researchers.

They figured out what many other additional signs meant. However, approximately 3.7% of the Linear Elamite signs are still unreadable.

Other experts are skeptical

The deciphered script, which may have originated in now southern Iran, has some experts skeptical. It is unclear whether all of the artifacts used to interpret the writings were obtained legally.

Many research teams have previously decoded different Linear Elamite inscriptions. The new study allegedly builds on this previous work by comparing the writing system in the eight Linear Elamite inscriptions with cuneiform texts dating to the same period.

And likely contain the names of the same rulers and their titles, as well as some of the same phrases to describe the rulers.

"Not sure if the team has made a successful decipherment," Jacob Dahl, an Assyriology professor at the University of Oxford, told Live Science.

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Dahl, who is working on a script called "proto-Elamite," disagrees with the new researchers' statement in the article that proto-Elamite and Linear Elamite are closely related.

In their analysis, he is concerned that the team's use of inscriptions discovered at the Bronze Age archaeological site of Konar Sandal (near Jiroft, an Iranian city) have suspicious features, which Dahl believes "indicate forgery."

While the Konar Sandal artifacts were not one of the eight new inscriptions central to the decipherment, Dahl observed that their use raises questions about the decipherment.

The impounded inscription

The origins of the eight Linear Elamite inscriptions are unknown to experts. Seven are in the collection of Houshang Mahboubian, a collector from Iran, and the other is in the collection of Martin Schøyen, a Norwegian businessman and collector.

On August 24, 2021, Norwegian police impounded the inscription in Schøyen's collection. The collector "failed to provide documentation of legal removal from Iran, and the evidence on balance otherwise indicates modern looting, smuggling, and illicit trading," according to the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.

It was recommended that authorities in Iran be consulted about what to do with the artifact.

"During more than 40 years that I have practiced as a lawyer, I have read an enormous number of reports. I never have seen a [report] as embarrassingly weak as this." Cato Schiøtz, an attorney at Oslo-based law firm Glittertind representing Schøyen, told Live Science.

The Linear Elamite artifact is currently impounded but "was wrongfully seized and is expected to be returned," claimed a spokesperson for the collection.

The study was first published by De Gruyter in July.

Study abstract:

Linear Elamite writing was used in southern Iran in the late 3rd/early 2nd millennium BCE (ca. 2300–1880 BCE). First discovered during the French excavations at Susa from 1903 onwards, it has so far resisted decipherment. The publication of eight inscribed silver beakers in 2018 provided the materials and the starting point for a new attempt; its results are presented in this paper. A full description and analysis of Linear Elamite of writing, employed for recording the Elamite language, is given here for the first time, together with a discussion of Elamite phonology and the biscriptualism that characterizes this language in its earliest documented phase.

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