François Bridey treads the deserted halls of the Louvre to room seven of the Near Eastern Antiquities section; the Venus de Milo stands alone, and the usual crowds are forced elsewhere for the day. He makes a quick phone call to illuminate a display cabinet, and around thirty small objects come to light. These clay tablets bear the marks of proto-Elamite script, one of the last undeciphered writing systems in the world.
Bridey is a curator here, and though he can describe the general features of these tablets, he cannot say for sure what messages they convey. “Proto-Elamite has been used to write one language, but we don’t know which,” he concedes. Some experts think it was used to write the Elamite language, although Bridey’s quick to point out that no solid evidence exists for this claim.
An uncertain history
The proto-Elamite tablets were produced between 3300BC and 3000BC in present-day Iran, while the beginning of the Elamite civilisation is generally located at around 2700BC. Again, Bridey lays out the bare truth: there are some cultural links between the two societies, but because researchers don’t know if they used the same language, “we are not sure that it was even the same group of people.”
Much of this uncertainty stems from the fact that the proto-Elamite writing system was only used for a very short time. Whereas contemporary Mesopotamian writing systems evolved throughout history, creating a link to their ancient precursors that can now be studied, proto-Elamite died out completely within a few centuries. For Bridey, this poses one of the greatest obstacles to deciphering the texts.
Still, knowledge of the broader historical context has provided researchers with important clues as to the purpose and development of these tablets. Bridey notes that writing systems became more widespread as social organisation also increased, and hence the tablets reflect an early attempt to create a more hierarchical and controlled society. “The first forms of writing were linked with the need to record numerical information,” he says—whether to ration food or record commercial exchanges—and researchers understand the proto-Elamite tablets to be administrative texts designed for this purpose.
Bridey points to a group of small, round clay balls on the shelf next to the proto-Elamite inscriptions. These are the direct precursors to one of the world’s oldest writing systems. The objects do not yet bear any text, but they are evidence that accounting systems were being developed before the use of inscribed tablets. These round balls were enclosed in clay envelopes, which, in turn, were stamped with information about the number of pieces inside and with the imprint of whoever had certified the transaction. The idea was that the envelope could subsequently be cracked open to check the number of balls inside corresponded with the number of goods being traded.
From here, the system evolved to include the inscribed clay tablets now resting in Paris. Around 1 700 examples have so far been recovered, principally around the ancient city of Susa, and most of these are housed at the Louvre. A team from Oxford University has also led a project to create high-definition photos of each fragment in an attempt to better record individual signs. The technology means that faded inscriptions can be seen more clearly and that all six surfaces of the tablet can be laid out against each other. But much of the text remains a mystery. Close to a century after their discovery, the precise content of the proto-Elamite tablets is still being debated.
Deconstructing a writing system
Some information has been gleaned from the fact that certain numerical signs on the tablets are related to their Mesopotamian counterparts from the same period. Several of the written signs are also comparable—but a good number seem to be completely abstract, with no relationship to any other known drawings, icons, or natural objects. Bridey suggests that these abstract signs could form not just individual words or references, but a syllabic system: together, a group of signs could sound out a word or phrase. A similar system existed in Mesopotamia; however, it drew on existing signs for a word that had the desired phonetic sound. A bit like what we’d call a rebus today.
So it appears the undeciphered signs in the proto-Elamite script were phonetic, but not ideogrammatic. Without knowing which language is being recorded, however, this insight is of little immediate help. For Bridey, the discovery of a bilingual tablet that pairs proto-Elamite script with another (known) writing system would be ideal, and he appears optimistic that such a find could, in future, help to solve this millennia-old riddle. It may simply be a matter of time—but five thousand years after the tablets were originally produced, the discoveries do not seem forthcoming.