A mysterious ancient writing system called Linear Elamite, used between 2300 BC and 1800 BC in what is now southern Iran, may finally have been deciphered, although some experts are skeptical about the findings. Furthermore, it is unclear whether all the artifacts used to decipher the writings were legally purchased.
Only about 40 known examples of Linear Elam survive today, making the script challenging to decipher, but researchers say they’ve mostly gotten there, 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 deciphering them was the analysis of eight inscriptions on silver cups.
Other research teams had previously deciphered various Elamite linear inscriptions, and the authors of the new study built on this earlier work by comparing the writing system in the eight Elamite linear inscriptions with cuneiform texts (a now-deciphered script used in what today is the Middle East). dating from around the same time period and likely containing the names of the same rulers and their titles and using some of the same phrases to describe the rulers.
The team determined what many other additional cues meant, the team wrote. However, about 3.7% of Linear Elamite signs remain undecipherable. There are more than 300 Linear Elamite signs that represent 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-Sušinak, king of Awan, Insušinak [a deity] love him.” The text adds that anyone who rebels from Puzur-Sušinak must be “destroyed.” The team wrote that more translations of the full texts will be published in the future.
Corresponding author for the team, François Desset, 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 research to get their thoughts on the paper. Most either declined comment or did not respond in time for publication. However, Jacob Dahl, a professor of Assyriology at Oxford University, said he is not sure whether the team has made a successful decipherment.
Dahl works on a different scenario called “proto-Elamite” and disagreed with a statement the team made in the article that proto-Elamite and Linear Elamite have a close relationship. In addition, he is 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 features, which may indicate forgery, Dahl said. While the artifacts from Konar Sandal are 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 did the inscriptions come from?
Experts are not exactly sure where the eight Elamite linear inscriptions originated. Seven are in the collection of a collector named Houshang Mahboubian, while the other is in the collection of Martin Schøyen, a Norwegian businessman and collector. The Schøyen Collection has staff members who help oversee the collection and they regularly work with researchers.
The inscription owned by Schøyen and hundreds of other objects 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 Schøyen “failed to provide documentation of legal departure from Iran and the evidence on balance otherwise points to modern robbery, smuggling and illegal trade” and recommended that authorities in Iran be consulted on what have to do with the linear Elamite artifact.
In July, the Schøyen collection released a declaration (opens in new tab) criticizing the report, claiming that at least one author of the study had a strong bias against Schøyen, and calling the idea that the object with the Linear Elamite inscription had been smuggled in recently “completely unfounded”. The collection believes the linear Elamite inscription is from the ancient city of Susa in Iran.
Cato Schiøtz, an attorney at Oslo-based law firm Glittertind representing Schøyen, said in a statement to Live Science that “in the more than 40 years I’ve been practicing law, I’ve read a large number of reports. I’ve never seen or [report] A spokesman for the collection told Live Science that the Linear Elamite artifact is currently under confiscation, but “was seized in error and is expected to be returned.”
Meanwhile, the origin of the artifacts from the Mahboubian collection is not exactly clear, the team wrote in the new paper. In a 2018 paper published in Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies (opens in new tab), Desset told the newspaper Mahboubian told him that the artifacts were discovered in excavations carried out by his father, Benjamin Abol Ghassem Mahboubian, in 1922 and 1924 in the cities of Kam-Firouz and Beyza in Iran. Mahboubian provided the coordinates that were published in the paper.
Live Science examined the coordinates at Google Earth and found that, today, the city of Kam-Firouz partially covers one site, while the city of Beyza completely covers the other. In the 2018 letter, Desset wrote that Mahboubian told him the artifacts had been exported to Europe before 1970.
A metallurgical and chemical analysis performed on artifacts from Mahboubian’s collection found no evidence of forgery, a separate 2018 Iran: Journal of the British Institute of Persian Studies (opens in new tab) study found. Artifact patina (a film that forms on an object when it is exposed to certain environments or substances for long periods of time) indicates that the objects were buried in the ground, something that suggests they are authentic. Additionally, the manufacturing process of the objects and the ratio of silver to other metals all indicate authenticity. The findings point “to ancient artifacts rather than clever modern forgeries,” the technical team wrote in the article.
Members of the technical team either declined comment or did not respond by 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 sentenced (opens in new tab) hiring thieves to steal part of his collection so he could collect the insurance money. This conviction was upside down (opens in new tab) in 1989, and a retrial was ordered on two of the charges. The retrial was not held and the charges were dismissed. In one declaration (opens in new tab) on his website, Mahboubian said the charges against him were motivated by his Iranian background.
A representative for the Mahboubian Collection did not return requests for comment by the time of publication.
Originally published in Live Science.