Crowdsourcing an Ancient Script

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Proto-Elamite was a writing system used 5,000 years ago by the proto-Elamite people, the oldest known civilization in Iran. Although it was written in clay tablets like cuneiform and probably inspired by the proto-Elamites’ Mesopotamian neighbors, the proto-Elamite script is quite different in appearance, consisting mainly of lines and circles. These differences, along with the lack of any bilingual tablets like the Rosetta stone, have kept proto-Elamite a mystery to scholars. As an added bonus, some of the tablets we do have appear to be riddled with errors caused by poorly educated scribes.

Now, Jacob Dahl of Oxford’s Wolfson College believes that with the help of new technology and crowdsourcing, the script may soon be a mystery no more. He told the BBC, “I think we are finally on the point of making a breakthrough” in understanding the script.

Dr. Dahl is using a machine called a Reflectance Transformation Imaging System to capture incredibly rich, incredibly detailed images of the Proto-Elamite tablets stored at the Louvre. These images are being made available to other scholars and the general public at the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative’s website.

The new, clearer images and easy access should make it easier for scholars from all over the world to have a go at translating the tablets. In a press release from Oxford, Dr. Dahl commented that

“The quality of the images captured is incredible. And it is important to remember that you cannot decipher a writing system without having reliable images because you will, for example, overlook differences barely visible to the naked eye which may have meaning. Consider for example not being able to distinguish the letter i from the letter t.”

Interestingly, scholars now believe that the proto-Elamite script used a syllabary (where different symbols represent different sounds) instead of a collection of pictographs (where the symbols represent objects). This may be one reason it’s so hard to translate, especially since we don’t know what the language it represents sounded like.

According to Dr, Dahl, if the tablets are deciphered, it would revolutionize our understanding of how writing developed:

“Half of the signs used in this way seem to have been invented ex novo for the sounds they represent – if this turns out to be the case, it would transform fundamentally how we understand early writing where phonetecism is believed to have been developed through the so-called rebus principle (a modern example would be for example “I see you”, written with the three signs ‘eye’, the ‘sea’, and a ‘ewe’).”