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ISO 15924
ISO 15924Pelm (016), ​Proto-Elamite
Proto-Elamite tablets from Shahr-i Sokhta

The Proto-Elamite script is an early Bronze Age writing system briefly in use before the introduction of Elamite cuneiform.

There are many similarities between the Proto-Elamite tablets and the contemporaneous proto-cuneiform tablets of the Uruk IV period in Mesopotamia. Both writing systems are a relatively isolated phenomenon. Singletons aside tablets have been found at only five Proto-Elamite sites. For comparison, Proto-cuneiform tablets have only been found at Uruk, Jemdet Nasr, Khafajah, and Tell Uqair, and the vast majority of each type have been found at Susa and Uruk. The tablet blanks themselves, the inscribing method, even the practice of using the reverse for summation, when needed, are the same. They serve the same basic function which is administrative accounting of goods in a centrally controlled society. From that base, there are also differences, the signs themselves being the most obvious but extending to smaller areas such as the order in which the tablet was inscribed, are clear. Fortunately, there are a number of similarities between the numeric systems of Proto-cuneiform and Proto-Elamite. Proto-Elamite, in addition to the usual sexagesimal and base-120, also uses its own decimal system.[1][2]

Economical tablet in Proto-Elamite, Suse III, Louvre Museum, reference Sb 15200, c. 3100–2850 BC
Proto-Elamite tablet with transcription

Beginning around the 9th millennium BC, a token based system came into use in various parts of the ancient Near East. These evolved into marked tokens and later marked envelopes, often called clay bullae.[3][4][5] It is usually assumed that these were the basis for the development of Proto-Elamite as well as proto-cuneiform (with many of the tokens, about two-thirds, having been found in Susa). Tokens remained in use after the development of proto-cuneiform and Proto-Elamite.[6][7][8][9]

The earliest tablets found in the region are of a "numerical" type, containing only lists of numbers. They are found not only at Susa and Uruk, but in a variety of sites, including those without later Proto-Elamite and proto-cuneiform tablets, like Tell Brak, Habuba Kabira, Tepe Hissar, Godin Tepe and Jebel Aruda.[10][11][12][13][14]

Linear Elamite is attested much later in the last quarter of the 3rd millennium BCE. It is uncertain whether the Proto-Elamite script was the direct predecessor of Linear Elamite. Both scripts remain largely undeciphered, and a postulated relationship between the two is speculative.

Early on, similarities were noted between Proto-Elamite and the Cretan Linear A script.[15]


The Proto-Elamite writing system was used over a very large geographical area, stretching at least from Susa in the west to Tepe Yahya in the east. The known corpus of inscriptions consists of some 1600 tablets, the vast majority unearthed at Susa.

Proto-Elamite tablets have been found at the following sites, in order of how many tablets have been recovered:

Glyphs found in Proto-Elamite texts are divided in numerical (with an N profix) and text (with a M prefix). Of the 1000s of text glyphs in the current corpus more than half are numerical. The meaning of a numerical glyph may depend on which system it is being used in, decimal (D), sexagesimal (S), bisexagesimal (B), or capacity (C).[32][33]


Decipherment attempts

Proto-Elamite tablet found at Tepe Yahya

The first step in deciphering an unknown writing system is getting the known corpus fully published and developing a proposed sign list.[34] The publishing of the texts has now been mostly completed but the sign list is still partly a work in progress. Proto-Elamite has many singleton signs (like early stages of proto-cuneiform) due to texts being primarily consumed only locally and there is disagreement over whether some signs are different or merely variants but by 1974 enough of a consensus over the Proto-Elamite signs has been reached to enable the decipherment process to advance. [35][36][37][38]

In 2012, Dr Jacob Dahl of the University of Oxford, announced a project to make high-quality images of Proto-Elamite clay tablets and publish them online. His hope is that crowdsourcing by academics and amateurs working together would be able to understand the script, despite the presence of mistakes and the lack of phonetic clues.[39] Dahl assisted in making the images of nearly 1600 Proto-Elamite tablets online.[40] Materials were put online[41] on a wiki of the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative.[42]

In 2020, François Desset [fr], of the Laboratoire Archéorient in Lyon, France, announced a proposed decipherment and translation of proto-Elamite texts.[43][44] In 2022 Desset published a paper on Linear Elamite which also proposed sign forms for Proto-Elamite (recasting it as "Early Proto-Iranian").[45][46] This new proposal was not met with universal agreement.[47]

Although the decipherment of Proto-Elamite remains uncertain, the content of many texts is known. This is possible because certain signs, and in particular a majority of the numerical signs, are similar to the neighboring Mesopotamian writing system proto-cuneiform. In addition, a number of the Proto-Elamite signs are actual images of the objects they represent. However, the majority of the Proto-Elamite signs are entirely abstract, and their meanings can only be deciphered through careful graphemic analysis.[48]

While the Elamite language has been suggested as a candidate underlying the Proto-Elamite inscriptions, there is no positive evidence of this. The earliest Proto-Elamite inscriptions, being purely ideographic, do not in fact contain any linguistic information nor is it known for certain what language was spoken in the relevant area during the Proto-Elamite Period.[49]


  1. ^ Friberg, Jöran, "Three Thousand Years of Sexagesimal Numbers in Mesopotamian Mathematical Texts", Archive for History of Exact Sciences, vol. 73, no. 2, pp. 183–216, 2019
  2. ^ Friberg, Jöran, "The Early Roots of Babylonian Mathematics: II. Metrological Relations in a Group of Semi-Pictographic Tablets of the Jemdet Nasr Type, Probably from Uruk-Warka", Research Report, 1979-15; University of Göteborg, Department of Mathematics, Chalmers, 1978–79
  3. ^ Schmandt-Besserat, Denise, "The Envelopes That Bear the First Writing", Technology and Culture, vol. 21, no. 3, pp. 357–85, 1980
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  12. ^ [1] Hallo, William W., "Godin Tepe: The Inscriptions", Yale University, 2011
  13. ^ Oates, Joan and Oates, David, "The Reattribution of Middle Uruk Materials at Brak". Leaving No Stones Unturned: Essays on the Ancient Near East and Egypt in Honor of Donald P. Hansen, edited by Erica Ehrenberg, University Park, USA: Penn State University Press, pp. 145–154, 2002
  14. ^ R. Dyson, "The relative and absolute chronology of Hissar H and the proto-Elamite of Northern Iran", In: Chronologie du Prochc Orient/Relative chrono-logics and absolute chronology 16,000–4,000 BC. CNRS International Symposium, Lyon France, 24–28 Novem-ber, 1986, 13AR Internat. Scr. 379, Oxford, pp. 647–677, 1987
  15. ^ Brice, W., "A Comparison of the Account Tablets of Susa in the Proto-Elamite Script with Those of Hagia Triada in Linear A", KADMOS, 2(1), pp. 27–38, 1963
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  19. ^ Lamberg-Karlovsky, Clifford Charles, "Proto-Elamite account tablets from Tepe Yahya, Iran", Kadmos 10, pp. 97–9, 1971
  20. ^ [2] Mutin, Benjamin, The Proto-Elamite Settlement and its Neighbors: Tepe Yahya Period IVC, ed. C.C. Lamberg-Karlovsky, Oxbow Books / American School of Prehistoric Research Publications, 2013 ISBN 978-1-78297-419-2
  21. ^ Peter Damerow and Robert K. Englund, "The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya", The American School of Prehistoric Research Bulletin 39, Cambridge, MA, 1989
  22. ^ Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C., "The Proto-Elamite Settlement at Tepe Yaḥyā", Iran, vol. 9, pp. 87–96, 1971
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  32. ^ [5]Born, Logan, et al., "Disambiguating Numeral Sequences to Decipher Ancient Accounting Corpora", Proceedings of the Workshop on Computation and Written Language (CAWL 2023), 2023
  33. ^ Alimirzoev, A. N. and Yu. B. Yusifov, "On the decipherment of numerical signs of the Proto-Elamite script", Vestnik drevnej istorii, pp. 3-20, 1993
  34. ^ Gelb, I. J., and R. M. Whiting, "Methods of Decipherment", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 2, pp. 95–104, 1975
  35. ^ Piero Meriggi, "La scritura proto-elamica. Parte Ia: La scritura e il contenuto dei testi", Rome, 1971
  36. ^ Piero Meriggi,"La scritura proto-elamica. Parte IIa: Catalogo dei segni", Rome, 1974
  37. ^ Piero Meriggi, "La scritura proto-elamica. Parte IIIa: Testi", Rome, 1974
  38. ^ Dahl, Jacob L., "The proto-Elamite writing system", in The Elamite World, pp. 383–396, 2018
  39. ^ Breakthrough in world's oldest undeciphered writing – Sean Coughlan – 2012-10-25 BBC
  40. ^ Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
  41. ^ Coughlan, Sean (24 October 2012). "'Crowd-sourcing' website to decipher ancient writing". BBC News.
  42. ^ "Proto-Elamite". Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative Wiki.
  43. ^ "Un Français déchiffre une écriture de plus de 4000 ans". 7 December 2020.
  44. ^ "Iranian plateau gave birth to writing: French archaeologist". 11 December 2020.
  45. ^ Desset, François, Tabibzadeh, Kambiz, Kervran, Matthieu, Basello, Gian Pietro and Marchesi, and Gianni, "The Decipherment of Linear Elamite Writing", Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und vorderasiatische Archäologie, vol. 112, no. 1, pp. 11–60, 2022
  46. ^ Kelley, Kathryn, et al., "On Newly Proposed Proto-Elamite Sign Values", Iranica Antiqua 57, pp. 1–25, 2022
  47. ^ [6] Dahl, J., "Proto-Elamite and linear elamite, a misunderstood relationship?", Akkadica, 2023
  48. ^ [7] Robert K. Englund, "The State of Decipherment of Proto-Elamite", in: Stephen Houston, ed. The First Writing: Script Invention as History and Process (2004). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 100–149.
  49. ^ Jöran Friberg, "The Third Millennium Roots of Babylonian Mathematics I-II", Göteborg, 1978/79

Further reading