BBC reports on the linguists who have started puzzling out how to read and write in proto-Elamite:
“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.
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.
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.
Dahl and other experts believe written Elamite may have died out, eventually, because there weren’t any firm rules on how things should be spelled, or even how letters should be written. The Elamites borrowed writing from the Mesopotamians next door, but used the symbols in a totally different way… partially just making it up as they went along.