A few years ago I worked on a project to encode writing systems into Unicode. But how do you encode writing systems that haven’t yet been deciphered, such as Rongorongo? Unfortunately, you have to decipher them first. One of the scripts I researched was the mysterious Proto-Elamite, which is about 80-90% undeciphered, although it appears that we’re getting closer to cracking this ancient writing system.
Proto-Elamite was a writing system used to write an unknown language sometime around the 3000 BC. It was used in Susa, the capital of Elam, which is in modern-day Iran. The script has about 1,200 signs so it is probably logographic (each symbol represents a word or part of a word.) Proto-Elamite was written from right to left, in lines from top to bottom. The symbols feature animals and mythical creatures, as well as dots, lines and circles.
Proto-Elamite probably developed from early Sumerian because there are some graphic and semantic similarities between it and proto-cuneiform. There are about 1,600 examples of this script written on clay tablets, which are thought to be administrative and agricultural records. There is no key or bilingual text so we don’t know what the tablets say. We don’t know the language that it was used for, so we don’t have any phonological cues. It seems that there were very few scribes who didn’t pass down the writing accurately, and so the writing was abandoned after a few hundred years.
Researchers are Oxford University and the University of Southampton are working to decode the script. They used a technology called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to take high quality photographs of a collection of tablets stored in the Louvre. Being able to see the symbols clearly is more important than you might think. This will enable the researchers to be able to capture every detail of the writing. Until now, not being able to isolate the individual symbols on these ancient tablets has been like not being able to differentiate between the letters “i” and “t” that we use in the Latin alphabet.
These images have been compiled online at the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and the researchers hope that a combined effort will lead to the decoding of this writing system. So why not check out the images and see if you can crack the code for Proto-Elamite?