Notes on proto-Elamite, Elamite, Dravidian civilization and Susa

Proto-Elamite script
Breakthrough in world’s oldest undeciphered writing
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News 22 October 2012

Experts working on proto-Elamite hope they are on the point of ‘a breakthrough’Jacob Dahl at the Ashmolean Museum

Jacob Dahl wants the public and other academics to help with an online decipherment of the texts

The world’s oldest undeciphered writing system, which has so far defied attempts to uncover its 5,000-year-old secrets, could be about to be decoded by Oxford University academics.

This international research project is already casting light on a lost bronze age middle eastern society where enslaved workers lived on rations close to the starvation level.

“I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough,” says Jacob Dahl, fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford and director of the Ancient World Research Cluster.

Dr Dahl’s secret weapon is being able to see this writing more clearly than ever before.

In a room high up in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, above the Egyptian mummies and fragments of early civilisations, a big black dome is clicking away and flashing out light.

This device, part sci-fi, part-DIY, is providing the most detailed and high quality images ever taken of these elusive symbols cut into clay tablets. This is Indiana Jones with software.

It’s being used to help decode a writing system called proto-Elamite, used between around 3200BC and 2900BC in a region now in the south west of modern Iran.

And the Oxford team think that they could be on the brink of understanding this last great remaining cache of undeciphered texts from the ancient world.

Tablet computer
Dr Dahl, from the Oriental Studies Faculty, shipped his image-making device on the Eurostar to the Louvre Museum in Paris, which holds the most important collection of this writing.

Jacob Dahl wants the public and other academics to help with an online decipherment of the texts
The clay tablets were put inside this machine, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging System, which uses a combination of 76 separate photographic lights and computer processing to capture every groove and notch on the surface of the clay tablets.

It allows a virtual image to be turned around, as though being held up to the light at every possible angle.

These images will be publicly available online, with the aim of using a kind of academic crowdsourcing.

He says it’s misleading to think that codebreaking is about some lonely genius suddenly understanding the meaning of a word. What works more often is patient teamwork and the sharing of theories. Putting the images online should accelerate this process.

But this is painstaking work. So far Dr Dahl has deciphered 1,200 separate signs, but he says that after more than 10 years study much remains unknown, even such basic words as “cow” or “cattle”.

He admits to being “bitten” by this challenge. “It’s an unknown, uncharted territory of human history,” he says.

Extinct language
But why has this writing proved so difficult to interpret?

Dr Dahl suspects he might have part of the answer. He’s discovered that the original texts seem to contain many mistakes – and this makes it extremely tricky for anyone trying to find consistent patterns.
This first case of educational underinvestment proved fatal for the writing system, which was corrupted and then completely disappeared after only a couple of hundred years. “It’s an early example of a technology being lost,” he says.

“The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made and the writing system may eventually have become useless.”

Making it even harder to decode is the fact that it’s unlike any other ancient writing style. There are no bi-lingual texts and few helpful overlaps to provide a key to these otherwise arbitrary looking dashes and circles and symbols.

This is a writing system – and not a spoken language – so there’s no way of knowing how words sounded, which might have provided some phonetic clues.

Dr Dahl says that one of the really important historical significances of this proto-Elamite writing is that it was the first ever recorded case of one society adopting writing from another neighbouring group.

But infuriatingly for the codebreakers, when these proto-Elamites borrowed the concept of writing from the Mesopotamians, they made up an entirely different set of symbols.

Why they should make the intellectual leap to embrace writing and then at the same time re-invent it in a different local form remains a puzzle.

But it provides a fascinating snapshot of how ideas can both spread and change.

Mr One Hundred
In terms of written history, this is the very remote past. But there is also something very direct and almost intimate about it too.

You can see fingernail marks in the clay. These neat little symbols and drawings are clearly the work of an intelligent mind.

Inside dome of imaging device
A set of 76 lights are used in the capturing of images of surface marks in the ancient tablets
These were among the first attempts by our human ancestors to try to make a permanent record of their surroundings. What we’re doing now – my writing and your reading – is a direct continuation.

But there are glimpses of their lives to suggest that these were tough times. It wasn’t so much a land of milk and honey, but porridge and weak beer.

Even without knowing all the symbols, Dr Dahl says it’s possible to work out the context of many of the messages on these tablets.

The numbering system is also understood, making it possible to see that much of this information is about accounts of the ownership and yields from land and people. They are about property and status, not poetry.

This was a simple agricultural society, with a ruling household. Below them was a tier of powerful middle-ranking figures and further below were the majority of workers, who were treated like “cattle with names”.

Their rulers have titles or names which reflect this status – the equivalent of being called “Mr One Hundred”, he says – to show the number of people below him.

It’s possible to work out the rations given to these farm labourers.

Dr Dahl says they had a diet of barley, which might have been crushed into a form of porridge, and they drank weak beer.

The amount of food received by these farm workers hovered barely above the starvation level.

However the higher status people might have enjoyed yoghurt, cheese and honey. They also kept goats, sheep and cattle.

For the “upper echelons, life expectancy for some might have been as long as now”, he says. For the poor, he says it might have been as low as in today’s poorest countries.

The tablets also have surprises. Even though there are plenty of pictures of animals and mythical creatures, Dr Dahl says there are no representations of the human form of any kind. Not even a hand or an eye.

Was this some kind of cultural or religious taboo?

Dr Dahl remains passionate about what this work says about such societies, digging into the deepest roots of civilisation. This is about where so much begins. For instance, proto-Elamite was the first writing ever to use syllables.

If Macbeth talked about the “last syllable of recorded time”, the proto-Elamites were there for the first.

And with sufficient support, Dr Dahl says that within two years this last great lost writing could be fully understood


  • Proto-Elamite is the name given to a writing system developed in an area that is now in south-western Iran
  • It was adopted about 3200BC and was borrowed from neighbouring Mesopotamia
  • It was written from right to left in wet clay tablets
  • There are more than a thousand surviving tablets in this writing
  • The biggest group of such texts was collected by 19th Century French archaeologists and brought back to the Louvre
  • While other ancient writing, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, Sumerian and Mesopotamian, have been deciphered – attempts with proto-Elamite have proved unsuccessful
  • He believes this was not just a case of the scribes having a bad day at the office. There seems to have been an unusual absence of scholarship, with no evidence of any lists of symbols or learning exercises for scribes to preserve the accuracy of the writing.

Related Internet links

Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative

On the genetic affiliation of the Elamite language by George Starostin (Russian State University for the Humanities)

The Dravidian suffix of the dative case/indirect object *-kkV is compared to the Elamite
postposition ikku, ikka indicating movement towards an object. Again, this is not an exact match,
but more significant is the fact that the Dravidian suffix also has a Nostratic etymology: in (ND I
245) it is compared to Proto-Uralic *-kkʌ/-*kʌ (marker of the dative case) and Proto-Altaic *-kʌ
(postposition with essentially the same meaning as in Elamite). [Japanese iku =to go]

McAlpin compares the form with PD *ir_ay ‘great person, lord’ (DED 527) > Tam. ir_ai ‘anyone
who is great, king, lord, etc.’, Kan. er_e ‘state of being a master, master’, OTe. er_a ‘lord’ [Japanese erai=elite, great, erai hito =lord, great person]

“heart”: mE bu-ni.  The syllabic notation bu is extremely rare in Elamite; in fact, apart from proper names, it is only
met in this particular lexeme. It cannot be excluded that the word was actually dissimilated from an
earlier *muni, with a specific grafic change to mark the process.

Proto-Korean *manam ‘heart’, Proto-Japanese *muna -i ‘breast’.[ mune today]

“one”: achE ki …. e Eg. (Pyr) kyy ‘another’ [Chinese – yi Japanese ichi]

“skin”: nE ha-te-en, achE ha-tin [ Japanese hada]

“thou”: oE ni, mE ni, nu, nE, achE nu  Sino-Caucasian: cf. PST *na- ‘thou, you’ (the main Sino-Tibetan root for ‘thou’  [Proto-Korean *nə ‘thou’,  Proto-Japanese *na id. [Japanese anata Chinese ni /lu]

“tongue”: achE ti-ut, ti-ut-me. ? Nostratic: cf. Proto-North-Dravidian *tat-q ‘tongue’ (> Kurukh tatx, M [Japanese shita]

“tooth”: mE si-h-ha  On the other hand, even if the Old Elamite proper name si-h-ha-an does belong here (which is not obvious), the final -n can well be a suffix. Assuming a possible assimilation, we can then trace *sihha- back to *silha- and compare it with: [Japanese ha]

“walk”: nE, achE izza-/izzi– (iz-zi-i ‘he went’, achE iz-zi-man-ra ‘the walker’, etc.). Proto-Mongolian *icu- ‘to go back, get ready to go back’; Proto-Tungus *is- ‘to reach’; Proto-Japanese *isua(n)k- [today aruku]

‘to hurry, get ready to’. Cf. also Proto-South-Dravidian *Is-a-/*Ij-a- ‘to move, go’ (Tamil iyaku, icaku, Kannada esagu ‘to drive’;

“we” + Sino-Caucasian: PST *na– ‘I, we’ (Old Chinese *nha ‘I, we’; Tib. na ‘we’, Burm. na ‘I’, etc.).  [Japanese minna]

+ Nostratic: PN *– (ND I, p. 7) ‘we (excl.)’. This base in Nostratic is represented by PD *nam
‘we (excl.)’, PIE *ne-/*no- ‘we (oblique stem)’, PK *naj ‘we’. (Note that this is yet another case of
potentially close Elamite-Dravidian relationship undermined by data of other Nostratic

“water”: mE zu-ul. [Japanese mi-zu]

“eat”: achE mak-.
A somewhat dubious entry…and used in contexts of the type “X consumes Y measures/portions in Z days”. However, so far it is the only root for ‘eating’ at our disposal, and there are no valid arguments to suggest the presence of a different ‘colloquial’ root in Elamite.
+ Nostratic: in Dravidian, a similar root for ‘eat’ can be found in Proto-North-Dravidian *moq-
‘to eat’ (Kurukh moxn, Malto moqe), with a further parallel in Malayalam mokuka ‘to drink, sip’
(DED 5127). The root can further be compared with Proto-Altaic *muk`e ‘to suck’, which is given

“know”: mE, achE tur-, turna- (mE du-ur-na-a ‘he knew’; achE tur-na-i id., etc.).
? Nostratic: cf. PA *t`erk`o ‘to think’ (> Proto-Turkic *TerKe- ‘to observe, research’;
Proto-Mongolian *taraki ‘brain, mind; head’; Proto-Tungus *terge- ‘to think, to doubt’) and
particularly PD *ter-i- ‘to be seen, clear’, with constant meaning shifts to ‘know’ (DED 3419; cf.
Tamil terul ‘to know’, Malayalam teriyuka ‘to understand, know’, etc.). [Japanese ‘to know’ is closest to Tamil shi-teru]

“stone”: achE h.har.lg. ? Nostratic: cf. PD *ar_-ai ‘rock’ (DED 321).
? Afroasiatic: Blaek compares this with PAA *har- ‘mountain, rock’ (Semitic: Hebrew har,
hereri ‘mountain’, Phoenician hr id.; East Cushitic: Yaaku haarɔ’ ‘big rock’ [Japanese iwa]

“man”: achE ru-h, cf. also mE, achE ru-hu ‘offspring’ and other derivates.
? Afroasiatic: cf. PAA *reh– ‘man’ [Chinese ren Japanese jin]

“head”: mE, nE uk-ku. Judging by Elamite material, the word is usually seen as related to the
postposition uk-ku with the meanings ‘upon; because, due to, according to’ (HK 1210). The
meaning ‘head’ is probably primary here, with a later semantic derivation (“head” => “top,
above”=> later development as in Greek kata ‘downwards; according to’).
+ Nostratic: An exact match exists here in Uralic *uk3 ‘head’ (Redei 542). McAlpin compares
the root in its abstract meaning with PDr *uk-a- ‘to ascend, jump up’ (DEDR 559); we could also
add PA *iaga ‘to rise, fall over’ > Proto-Japanese *a(n)ka– ‘to raise; to give’, T

. “hand”: mE ki-ir-pi ‘hands’, achE kur-pi id. (The original vowel of the root is unclear due to
a regular confusion of -u- and -i- from Middle to Achaemenid Elamite).
No exact matches in any of the macrofamilies. V. Blaek suggests an Afroasiatic parallel in
PAA *ḳar– ‘arm, shoulder’ > Somali qarqar ‘upper part of shoulder’ (East Cushitic), Egyptian qʕh
‘arm, shoulder’ [Japanese kata ‘shoulder’]

? Sino-Caucasian: potential correlates for the Elamite root can be seen in Proto-Yenisseian
*gVʔVr ‘hand’, PST *Khʷaar ‘fist, handful’; however, if these two are related to PNC *kwlʡ—
‘hand’ (NCED 706-7), the original consonant of the root should be reconstructed as *-l- and can
hardly qualify as a reliable phonologic match for Elamite

“full”: achE pu-, found in verbal forms like pu-qa ‘was full’, also in the nominal derivative
pu-pu-man-ra ‘he who fills’. The root may stem from an earlier *pun-, cf. nE pu-un-qa-ak,
pu-un-qa-qa ‘it was full, filled’. [Japanese man-puku =full ]…  One could consider a comparison
with Proto-Indo-European *pləne

“good”: oE [Japanese  ii]


Elam (Wikipedia):

 Proto-Elamite influence from the Persian plateau in Susa becomes visible from about 3200 BC, and texts in the still undeciphered Proto-Elamite writing system continue to be present until about 2700 BC. The Proto-Elamite period ends with the establishment of the Awan dynasty. The earliest known historical figure connected with Elam is the king Enmebaragesi of Kish (c. 2650 BC), who subdued it, according to the Sumerian king list. Elamite history can only be traced from records dating to beginning of the Akkadian Empire in around 2300 BC onwards. …

About a century later, the Sumerian king, Shulgi of Ur retook the city of Susa and the surrounding region. During the first part of the rule of the Simashki dynasty, Elam was under intermittent attack from Mesopotamians and Gutians, alternating with periods of peace and diplomatic approaches. Shu-Sin of Ur, for example, gave one of his daughters in marriage to a prince of Anshan. But the power of the Sumerians was waning; Ibbi-Sin in the 21st century did not manage to penetrate far into Elam, and in 2004 BC, the Elamites, allied with the people of Susa and led by king Kindattu, the sixth king of Simashk, managed to sack Ur and lead Ibbi-Sin into captivity—thus ending the third dynasty of Ur. The Akkadian kings of Isin, successor state to Ur, did manage to drive the Elamites out of Ur, rebuild the city, and to return the statue of Nanna that the Elamites had plundered.

Middle Elamite Period
[edit]Anshan and Susa
The Middle Elamite period began with the rise of the Anshanite dynasties around 1500 BC. Their rule was characterized by an “Elamisation” of Susa, and the kings took the title “king of Anshan and Susa”. While the first of these dynasties, the Kidinuids continued to use the Akkadian language frequently in their inscriptions, the succeeding Igihalkids and Shutrukids used Elamite with increasing regularity. Likewise, Elamite language and culture grew in importance in Susiana. The Kidinuids (c. 1500–1400) are a group of five rulers of uncertain affiliation. They are identified by their use of the older title, “king of Susa and of Anshan”, and by calling themselves “servant of Kirwashir”, an Elamite deity, thereby introducing the pantheon of the highlands to Susiana.

Neo-Elamite II (c. 770–646)
The later Neo-Elamite period is characterized by a significant migration of Indo-European speaking Iranians to the Iranian plateau. Assyrian sources beginning around 800 BC distinguish the “powerful Medes”, i.e. the actual Medes,(Parthians, Sagartians, Margians, Bactrians, Sogdians etc.). Among these pressuring tribes were the Parsu, first recorded in 844 BC as living on the southeastern shore of Lake Urmiah, but who by the end of this period would cause the Elamites’ original home, the Iranian Plateau, to be renamed Persia proper. These newly arrived Iranic peoples were largely regarded as vassals of the Neo-Assyrian Empire until the late 7th Century BC.

More details are known from the late 8th century BC, when the Elamites were allied with the Chaldean chieftain Merodach-baladan to defend the cause of Babylonian independence from Assyria. Khumbanigash (743–717) supported Merodach-baladan against Sargon II, apparently without success; while his successor, Shutruk-Nakhkhunte II (716–699), was routed by Sargon’s troops during an expedition in 710, and another Elamite defeat by Sargon’s troops is recorded for 708. The Assyrian dominion over Babylon was underlined by Sargon’s son Sennacherib, who defeated the Elamites and Babylonians and dethroned Merodach-baladan for a second time, installing his own son Ashur-nadin-shumi on the Babylonian throne in 700.

Shutruk-Nakhkhunte II, the last Elamite to claim the old title “king of Anshan and Susa”, was murdered by his brother Khallushu, who managed to capture the Assyrian governor of Babylonia Ashur-nadin-shumi and the city Babylon in 694. Sennacherib avenged this by invading and ravaging Elam in 694 BC. Khallushu was in turn assassinated by Kutir-Nakhkhunte, who succeeded him, but soon abdicated in favor of Khumma-Menanu III (692–689). Khumma-Menanu recruited a new army to help the Babylonians against the Assyrians at the battle of Halule in 691 BC. Both sides claimed the victory in their annals, but Babylon was destroyed by Sennacherib only two years later, and their Elamite allies defeated in the process.

In a tablet unearthed in 1854 by Henry Austin Layard, Ashurbanipal boasts of the destruction he had wrought:

“ Susa, the great holy city, abode of their Gods, seat of their mysteries, I conquered. I entered its palaces, I opened their treasuries where silver and gold, goods and wealth were amassed…I destroyed the ziggurat of Susa. I smashed its shining copper horns. I reduced the temples of Elam to naught; their gods and goddesses I scattered to the winds. The tombs of their ancient and recent kings I devastated, I exposed to the sun, and I carried away their bones toward the land of Ashur. I devastated the provinces of Elam and on their lands I sowed salt.”

Neo-Elamite III (646–539)
The devastation was less complete than Ashurbanipal boasted, and a fragmented Elamite rule was resurrected soon after with Shuttir-Nakhkhunte, son of III (not to be confused with Shuttir-Nakhkhunte, son of Indada, a petty king in the first half of the 6th century). Elamite royalty in the final century preceding the Achaemenids was fragmented among different small kingdoms, the united Elamite nation having been destroyed and colonised by the Assyrians. The three kings at the close of the 7th century (Shuttir-Nakhkhunte, Khallutush-In-Shushinak and Atta-Khumma-In-Shushinak ) still called themselves “king of Anzan and of Susa” or “enlarger of the kingdom of Anzan and of Susa”, at a time when the Achaemenid Persians were already ruling Anshan.

The Elamites practised polytheism. Knowledge about their religion is scant, but at one point they had a pantheon of gods headed by the god Khumban.[11] Other deities included the goddess Kiririsha and the gods Inshushinak and Jabru. There is a mention of Susha as a beautiful city of Varuna in Matsya Purana. Moreover, in Rig Veda it is mentioned that Sage Vasishta visited by sea a great thousand gated temple of Varuna (called Susha). Some scholars believe that there was a cultural and religious exchange between Elam and India.

A minority of scholars have proposed that the Elamite language could be related to the Munda Language of India, some to Mon–Khmer of Cambodia and some to the modern Dravidian languages of India and Sri Lanka such as Tamil and Malayalam,[12] in contrast to the majority who denote it as a language isolate.[13] David McAlpine believes Elamite may be related to the living Dravidian languages. This hypothesis is considered under the rubric of Elamo-Dravidian languages.

The rise of the Achaemenids in the 6th century BC brought an end to the existence of Elam as an independent political power “but not as a cultural entity” (Encyclopædia Iranica, Columbia University). Indigenous Elamite traditions, such as the use of the title “king of Anshan” by Cyrus the Great; the “Elamite robe” worn by Cambyses I of Anshan and seen on the famous winged genii at Pasargadae; some glyptic styles; the use of Elamite as the first of three official languages of the empire used in thousands of administrative texts found at Darius’ city of Persepolis; the continued worship of Elamite deities; and the persistence of Elamite religious personnel and cults supported by the crown, formed an essential part of the newly emerging Achaemenid culture in Persian Iran. The Elamites thus became the conduit by which achievements of the Mesopotamian civilizations were introduced to the tribes of the Iranian plateau.

Conversely, remnants of Elamite had “absorbed Iranian influences in both structure and vocabulary” by 500 BC,[14] suggesting a form of cultural continuity or fusion connecting the Elamite and the Persian periods.

Though numerous scholars link Cambyses to the Sanskrit tribal name Kamboja there are also few scholars who suggest Elamite origin of the name.[2][3] Jean Przyluski had sought to find an Austric (Kol or Munda) affinity for Kamboja.

Cambyses I or Cambyses the Elder, Persian: کمبوجيه يکم ‎ (via Latin from Greek Καμβύσης; Old Persian: Kambūǰiya-, Elamite: Kanbuziya, Akkadian: Kambuziya, Aramaic Knbwzy; c. 600 BC–559 BC) was king of Anshan in Iran from c. 580 to 559 BC and the father of Cyrus the Great (Cyrus II), younger son of Cyrus I, and brother of Arukku.[1] He should not be confused with his better-known grandson Cambyses II.

Cambyses was an early member of the Achaemenid dynasty. He was apparently a great-grandson of its founder Achaemenes, grandson of Teispes and son of Cyrus

Neo-Elamite III (646–539)
The devastation was less complete than Ashurbanipal boasted, and a fragmented Elamite rule was resurrected soon after with Shuttir-Nakhkhunte, son of III (not to be confused with Shuttir-Nakhkhunte, son of Indada, a petty king in the first half of the 6th century). Elamite royalty in the final century preceding the Achaemenids was fragmented among different small kingdoms, the united Elamite nation having been destroyed and colonised by the Assyrians. The three kings at the close of the 7th century (Shuttir-Nakhkhunte, Khallutush-In-Shushinak and Atta-Khumma-In-Shushinak ) still called themselves “king of Anzan and of Susa” or “enlarger of the kingdom of Anzan and of Susa”, at a time when the Achaemenid Persians were already ruling Anshan.

Note the fish-tailed iconography of Elam

Relief resembles a fish tailed woman holding snakes

An ornate design on this limestone ritual vat from the Middle Elamite period depicts creatures with the heads of goats and the tails of fish


Elamite God, Susa, Iran
Beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE

Elamite Empire Wednesday, October 24, 2012, History of Iran
By: Cyrus Shahmiri

Elamite God, Susa, Iran
Beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE The Iranian Plateau did not experience the rise of urban, literate civilization in the late 4th and early 3rd millennia on the Mesopotamian pattern but the lowland Khuzestan did. It was the Elamite Civilization.

Geographically, Elam included more than Khuzestan; it was a combination of the lowlands and the immediate highland areas to the north and east. Elamite strength was based on an ability to hold these various areas together under a coordinated government that permitted the maximum interchange of the natural resources unique to each region. Traditionally this was done through a federated governmental structure.

Closely related to that form of government was the Elamite system of inheritance and power distribution. The normal pattern of government was that of an overlord ruling over vassal princes. In earliest times the overlord lived in Susa, which functioned as a federal capital. With him ruled his brother closest in age, the viceroy, who usually had his seat of government in the native city of the currently ruling dynasty. This viceroy was heir presumptive to the overlord. Yet a third official, the regent or prince of Susa (the district), shared power with the overlord and the viceroy. He was usually the overlord’s son or, if no son was available, his nephew. On the death of the overlord, the viceroy became overlord. The prince of Susa remained in office, and the brother of the old viceroy nearest to him in age became the new viceroy. Only if all brothers were dead was the prince of Susa promoted to viceroy, thus enabling the overlord to name his own son (or nephew) as the new prince of Susa. Such a complicated system of governmental checks, balances, and power inheritance often broke down despite bilateral descent and levirate marriage (i.e., the compulsory marriage of a widow to her deceased husband’s brother). What is remarkable is how often the system did work; it was only in the Middle and Neo-Elamite periods that sons more often succeeded fathers to power.

Elamite history can be divided into three main phases: the Old, Middle, and Late, or Neo-Elamite, periods. In all periods Elam was closely involved with Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria, sometimes through peaceful trade, more often through war. In like manner, Elam was often a participant in events on the Iranian Plateau. Both involvements were related to the combined need of all the lowland civilizations to control the warlike peoples to the east and to exploit the economic resources of the plateau.

Old Elamite Period
The earliest kings in the Old Elamite period may date to approximately 2700 BCE. Already conflict with Mesopotamia, in this case apparently with the city of Ur, was characteristic of Elamite history. These early rulers were succeeded by the Awan (Shustar) dynasty.

The 11th king of this line entered into treaty relations with the great Naram-Sin of Akkad (c. 2254 – c. 2218 BCE). Yet there soon appeared a new ruling house, the Simash dynasty (Simash may have been in the mountains of southern Luristan). The outstanding event of this period was the virtual conquest of Elam by Shulgi of the 3rd dynasty of Ur (c. 2094 – c. 2047 BCE). Eventually the Elamites rose in rebellion and overthrew the 3rd Ur dynasty, an event long remembered in Mesopotamian dirges and omen texts. About the middle of the 19th century BCE, power in Elam passed to a new dynasty, that of Eparti. The third king of this line, Shirukdukh, was active in various military coalitions against the rising power of Babylon, but Hammurabi (c. 1792 – c. 1750 BCE) was not to be denied, and Elam was crushed in 1764 BCE. The Old Babylon kingdom, however, fell into rapid decline following the death of Hammurabi, and it was not long before the Elamites were able to gain revenge. Kutir-Nahhunte I attacked Samsuiluna (c. 1749 – c. 1712 BCE), Hammurabi’s son, and dealt so serious a defeat to the Babylonians that the event was remembered more than 1,000 years later in an inscription of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal. It may be assumed that with this stroke Elam once again gained independence. The end of the Eparti dynasty, which may have come in the late 16th century BCE, is buried in silence.

Middle Elamite Period
After two centuries for which sources reveal nothing, the Middle Elamite period opened with the rise to power of the Anzanite dynasty, whose homeland probably lay in the mountains northeast of Khuzestan. Political expansion under Khumbannumena (c. 1285 – c. 1266 BCE), the fourth king of this line, proceeded apace, and his successes were commemorated by his assumption of the title “Expander of the Empire.” He was succeeded by his son, Untash-Gal (Untash (d) Gal, or Untash-Huban), a contemporary of Shalmaneser I of Assyria (c. 1274 – c. 1245 BCE) and the founder of the city of Dur Untash (modern Chogha Zanbil).

In the years immediately following Untash-Gal, Elam increasingly found itself in real or potential conflict with the rising power of Assyria. Tukulti-Ninurta I of Assyria (c. 1244 – c. 1208 BCE) campaigned in the mountains north of Elam. The Elamites under Kidin-Khutran, second king after Untash-Gal, countered with a successful and devastating raid on Babylonia.

In the end, however, Assyrian power seems to have been too great. Tukulti-Ninurta managed to expand, for a brief time, Assyrian control well to the south in Mesopotamia, Kidin-Khutran faded into obscurity, and the Anzanite dynasty came to an end.

Golden Vase with Winged Monsters
Marlik Region, Iran 14th-13th centuries BCE After a short period of dynastic troubles, the second half of the Middle Elamite period opened with the reign of Shutruk-Nahhunte (c. 1160 BCE). Two equally powerful and two rather less impressive kings followed this founder of a new dynasty, whose home was probably Susa, and in this period Elam became one of the great military powers of the Middle East. Tukulti-Ninurta died about 1208 BC, and Assyria fell into a period of internal weakness and dynastic conflict. Elam was quick to take advantage of this situation by campaigning extensively in the Diyala River area and into the very heart of Mesopotamia. Shutruk-Nahhunte captured Babylon and carried off to Susa the stela on which was inscribed the famous law code of Hammurabi. Shilkhak-In-Shushinak, brother and successor of Shutruk-Nahhunte’s eldest son, Kutir-Nahhunte, still anxious to take advantage of Assyrian weakness, campaigned as far north as the area of modern Kirkuk. In Babylonia, however, the 2nd dynasty of Isin led a native revolt against such control as the Elamites had been able to exercise there, and Elamite power in central Mesopotamia was eventually broken. The Elamite military empire began to shrink rapidly. Nebuchadrezzar I of Babylon (c. 1124 – c. 1103 BCE) attacked Elam and was just barely beaten off. A second Babylonian attack succeeded, however, and the whole of Elam was apparently overrun, ending the Middle Elamite period.

It is noteworthy that during the Middle Elamite period the old system of succession to, and distribution of, power appears to have broken down. Increasingly, son succeeded father, and less is heard of divided authority within a federated system. This probably reflects an effort to increase the central authority at Susa in order to conduct effective military campaigns abroad and to hold Elamite foreign conquests. The old system of regionalism balanced with federalism must have suffered, and the fraternal, sectional strife that so weakened Elam in the Neo-Elamite period may have had its roots in the centrifugal developments of the 13th and 12th centuries BCE.

Neo-Elamite Period
A long period of darkness separates the Middle and Neo-Elamite periods. In 742 BCE a certain Huban-nugash is mentioned as king in Elam. The land appears to have been divided into separate principalities, with the central power fairly weak.

The next 100 years witnessed the constant attempts of the Elamites to interfere in Mesopotamian affairs, usually in alliance with Babylon, against the constant pressure of Neo-Assyrian expansion. At times they were successful with this policy, both militarily and diplomatically, but on the whole they were forced to give way to increasing Assyrian power. Local Elamite dynastic troubles were from time to time compounded by both Assyrian and Babylonian interference. Meanwhile, the Assyrian army whittled away at Elamite power and influence in Luristan. In time these internal and external pressures resulted in the near total collapse of any meaningful central authority in Elam. In a series of campaigns between 692 and 639 BCE, in an effort to clean up a political and diplomatic mess that had become a chronic headache for the Assyrians, Ashurbanipal’s armies utterly destroyed Susa, pulling down buildings, looting, and sowing the land of Elam with salt.

Tripod bowl with ibex/ram’s horns as legs Susa, Iran, beginning of 2nd millenium BCE



Analysis by Rossella Lorenzi
Tue Oct 23, 2012
The world’s oldest undeciphered writing system is close to being cracked thanks to a new technology and online crowdsourcing, Oxford University researchers have announced.

Called proto-Elamite, the writing has its roots in what is now Iran and dates from 3,200 to 3,000 B.C. So far, the 5,000-year-old writing has defied any effort to decode its symbols impressed on clay tablets.

Now a high-tech imaging device developed at the Universities of Oxford and Southampton in England might provide the necessary insight to crack the code once and for all.

Comprising a dome with 76 lights and a camera positioned at the top of the dome, the Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) is able to capture extremely high quality images of ancient documents.

As the object is placed in the center of the dome, 76 photos are taken each with one of the 76 lights individually lit.

The 76 images are then joined in post-processing so that 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.

“The quality of the images captured is incredible. I have spent the last ten years trying to decipher the proto-Elamite writing system and, with this new technology, I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough,” Jacob Dahl, from Oxford University’s Oriental Studies Faculty, said.

Dahl noted that overlooking differences barely visible to the naked eye may have prevented scholars from deciphering the writing.

“Consider for example not being able to distinguish the letter i from the letter t,” he said.

The images are now been made available online for free public access on the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative website.

As high definition images of the clay tablets are shared with scholars around the world, it is hoped that the enigmatic right to left writing will be finally deciphered.

Indeed, a few features of the writing system are already known: the scribes had loaned or possibly shared some signs from or with the Mesopotamians, such as the numerical signs and their systems and symbols for objects like sheep, goats, cereals.

In the past 10 years, Dahl himself has deciphered 1,200 separate signs, but he admits this is almost nothing compared to the complexity of the system.

About 80-90 percent of the signs are maddening puzzle and even basic words as “cow” or “cattle” remain undeciphered.

“Looking at contemporary and later writing systems, we would expect to see proto-Elamite use only symbols to represent things, but we think they also used a syllabary — for example ‘cat’ would not be represented by a symbol depicting the animal, but by symbols for the otherwise unrelated words ‘ca’ and ‘at,'” Dahl said.

According to the researcher, half of the signs used in this way seem to have been completely invented for the sounds they represent.

“If this turns out to be the case, it would transform fundamentally how we understand early writing where phonetecism is believed to have been developed through the so-called rebus principle. A modern example would be for example ‘I see you,’ written with the three signs ‘eye,’ the ‘sea,’ and a ‘ewe,'” Dahl said.

Containing depictions of animals and mythical creatures, but no representations of the human form whatsoever, the tablets appear to have been used only in administrative and agricultural records.

No evidence has emerged for learning exercises for scribes to improve and preserve the writing.

“The lack of a scholarly tradition meant that a lot of mistakes were made,” Dahl said.

Making the decoding even more difficult, the mistakes basically killed the writing system.

Eventually, the proto Elamite became useless even as an administrative system and after some two hundred years it was abandoned.

“This is probably the world’s first case of a collapse of knowledge because of the under-funding of education,” Dahl said.


Photo: Economic tablet with numeric signs and Proto-Elamite script. Excavated by Jacques de Morgan, 1907. Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

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