A mysterious ancient writing system called Linear Elamite, used between about 2300 BC and 1800 BC in what is now southern Iran, may finally be deciphered. although some experts are skeptical about the findings. Moreover, it is unclear whether all the artifacts used to decipher the scriptures were legitimately acquired.
Only about 40 known examples of Linear Elamite survive today, making the script difficult to decode, but researchers say they’ve largely accomplished just that, they wrote in a paper published in July in the journal Journal of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology (opens in new tab) (German for “Journal of Assyriology and Near Eastern Archaeology”). The key to their decipherment is the analysis of eight inscriptions on silver cups.
Other research teams have previously decoded various linear Elamite inscriptions, and the authors of the new study build on this previous work by comparing the writing system in the eight linear Elamite inscriptions with cuneiform (a now-deciphered script used in what is now the Middle East) texts which date from about the same time period and probably contain the names of the same rulers and their titles and use some of the same phrases to describe the rulers.
The team determined what many other additional characters mean, the team wrote. However, about 3.7% of Linear Elamite characters remain indecipherable. There are more than 300 linear Elamite signs representing different sounds, such as a crescent-shaped sign that sounds like “pa,” the team wrote in the paper.
The team translated a short text in the article which reads (in translation): “Puzur-Sushinak, king of Avan, Insushinak [a deity] loves him.” The text adds that anyone who rebels from Puzur-Sushinak must “be destroyed.” The team writes that more full-text translations will be published in the future.
The team’s corresponding author, François Deset, an archaeologist at the University of Tehran and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), declined to comment on the team’s work.
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Live Science also reached out to several other sources unaffiliated with the study to get their thoughts on the article. Most either declined to comment or did not respond in time for publication. However, Jacob Dahl, professor of Assyriology at the University of Oxford, said he was unsure whether the team had made a successful decipherment.
Dahl was working on another script called “Proto-Elamite” and disagreed with the team’s statement made in the paper that Proto-Elamite and Linear Elamite were closely related. He is also concerned that the team used inscriptions found at the Bronze Age archaeological site of Konar Sandal (near Jiroft, a city in Iran) in their analysis; these inscriptions have suspicious characteristics that may indicate forgery, Dahl said. Although the Konar sandalwood artifacts were not one of the eight new inscriptions that were central to the decipherment, the fact that they were used at all raises questions about the decipherment, Dahl noted.
Where do the captions come from?
Experts are not sure exactly where the eight linear Elamite inscriptions originated. Seven are in the collection of a collector named Houshang Mahboubian, and the other is in the collection of Martin Schoyen, a Norwegian businessman and collector. The Schøyen Collection has staff members who help oversee the collection and they regularly work with scientists.
The inscription owned by Schøyen and hundreds of other artifacts in Schøyen’s collection were confiscated by Norwegian police on 24 August 2021. A report (opens in new tab) published by Oslo’s Museum of Cultural History in March, said Shoyen had “failed to provide documentation of legal removal from Iran and all evidence otherwise points to contemporary looting, smuggling and illicit trade”, and recommended that authorities in Iran be consulted on what to do with the linear Elamite artifact.
In July, the Schøyen Collection released a statement (opens in new tab) criticizing the report, claiming that at least one author of the study had a strong anti-Schøyen bias and calling the idea that the artifact with the linear Elamite inscription had recently been smuggled “completely unfounded.” The collection believes the linear Elamite inscription is from the ancient city of Susa in Iran.
Cato Schiøtz, a lawyer at the Oslo-based law firm Glittertind representing Schøyen, said in a statement to Live Science that “during the more than 40 years that I have practiced as a lawyer, I have read a huge number of reports. I have never seen a [report] as embarrassingly weak as that.” A spokesperson for the collection told Live Science that the Linear Elamite artifact is currently impounded, but “was misconfiscated and is expected to be returned.”
Meanwhile, the provenance of the artifacts from the Mahbub collection is not exactly clear, the team wrote in the new paper. In a 2018 article published in Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies (opens in new tab), Ten told the newspaper. Mahboubian told him that the artifacts were found in excavations conducted by his father, Benjamin Abol Ghassem Mahboubian, in 1922 and 1924 in the cities of Qam-Firuz and Beiza in Iran. Mahboubian provided coordinates that were published in the newspaper.
Live Science explores the coordinates of Google Earth and found that today the city of Qam-Firuz partially covers one place, while the city of Beyza completely covers the other. In the 2018 document, Deset said Mahboubian told him the artifacts were exported to Europe before 1970.
Metallurgical and chemical analysis performed on the artifacts from the Mahboubian collection found no evidence of forgery, a separate 2018. Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies (opens in new tab) a study found. The patina of artifacts (a film that forms on an artifact when it is exposed to certain environments or substances for long periods of time) indicates that the objects were buried in soil, something that suggests they are authentic. In addition, the manufacturing process of the artifacts and the ratio of silver to other metals indicate authenticity. The findings point “to ancient artifacts, not ingenious modern forgeries,” the technical team wrote in the paper.
Members of the technical team either declined to comment or did not respond at the time of publication.
In the 1980s, Mahboubian and part of his collection were part of a series of trials that attracted media attention. In 1987 he was convicted (opens in new tab) hire thieves to steal some of his collection so he can collect the insurance money. That belief was overturned (opens in new tab) in 1989 and a retrial was ordered on two of the charges. The retrial did not take place and the charges were dropped. IN statement (opens in new tab) on his website, Mahbubian said the charges against him were motivated by his Iranian background.
A representative for the Mahboubian Collection did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.
Originally published on Live Science.