From CDLI Wiki

(the content of this article is in parts adopted from: Dahl, J. L., "Animal Husbandry in Susa during the Proto-Elamite Period" SMEA 47 (2005) 81-134 (PDF copy ( [7.7 MB]))

Table of contents

What is Proto-Elamite?

The first indigenous writing system from Iran is called proto-Elamite, it was long thought of as a precursor to a (hypothetical) indigenous Elamite writing system. Proto-Elamite, as well as linear-Elamite, remains largely un-deciphered. At present it is idle speculation to postulate a relationship between the two writing systems.

A few of the proto-Elamite signs are obvious loans from the slightly older proto-cuneiform, or perhaps more correctly share a common origin. Whereas proto-cuneiform is written in visual hierarchies, proto-Elamite is written in an in-line style. Basically numerical signs follow the objects they count, some non-numerical signs are images of the objects they represent although the majority are entirely abstract.

Proto-Elamite was used during a brief period around 3000 BCE (presumably contemporary with Uruk III or Jemdat Nasr in Mesopotamia), whereas linear-Elamite is attested for an equally brief period sometime during the later half of the 3rd millennium BCE.

The proto-Elamite writing system was used over a very large geographical area, stretching from Susa in the west, to Tepe Yahya in the east, and perhaps beyond. However, not all finds can be verified. This is partly due to the fact that their exists no clear definition of proto-Elamite among non-specialists.

Title:Map of sites in Iran
Title:Map of sites in Iran

Proto-Elamite tablets have been found at the following sites (in order of number of tablets recovered):

  • Susa (,48.250038&spn=0.113316,0.140247&z=13) (more than 1500 tablets (
  • Malyan (,52.407695&spn=0.115944,0.140247&z=13) (more than 30 tablets, 22 published (
  • Tepe Yahya (,56.866667&spn=0.117855,0.140247&z=13) (27 tablets (
  • Sialk (,51.404401&spn=0.111045,0.140247&z=13) (23 tablets (
  • Ozbaki (,50.545603&spn=0.108327,0.140247&z=13) (one tablet (
  • Shahr-i-Shokhta (,61.322&spn=0.115263,0.140247&z=13) (one tablet (

None of the inscribed objects from Ghazir (, Choga Mish ( or Hissar ( can be verified as proto-Elamite, the tablets from Ghazir and Choga Mish are Uruk IV style or numerical tablets, whereas the Hissar object cannot be classified at present. The majority of the Sialk tablets are also not proto-Elamite strictly speaking, but belong to the period of close contact between Mesopotamia and Iran, presumably corresponding to Uruk V - IV.

We are able to distinguish five stages of early writing at Susa; these are tokens and bullae, numerical tablets, numero-ideographic tablets, Uruk IV style tablets, early proto-Elamite tablets, and late proto-Elamite tablets. Numero-ideographic tablets from Iran can be distinguished from Mesopotamian ones only by the order of the numerical signs and non numerical signs; in Iran the numerical signs follow the object they qualify, whereas the reverse order is found in texts from Mesopotamia. There is no apparent difference between Mesopotamian and Iranian objects from the first two groups (i.e. tokens and bullae, and numerical tablets). Proto-Elamite tablets, both early and late, can be distingiushed in a number of ways, based on an analysis of structure and content.

Basically, proto-Elamite signs can be divided into five groups according to their place and function in the sentence. Sentence is used here to denote each self-contained unit in a proto-Elamite text; the header, an entry, the subscript, or the total (see also Englund 2004, 105 figure 5.3a). The five groups are 1) signs denoting an “owner” or a “household”, understood in the broadest of terms, as an individual, a temple or family household, a clan, or any other comparable socio-economic unit; 2) signs used to designate a person according to his or her social status, gender, age or similar categories; 3) signs standing for counted objects, including humans and animals; 4) numerical signs; and 5) signs used in the later phases of the writing system to write one of the two first types by combining two or more signs in a complex way. Note that there exists some overlapping between the signs of groups 1, 2, and 3. The high number of singletons (non-repeated signs) in proto-Elamite is in good accordance with the characteristics of proto-writing as described by Damerow 1999. As was also shown for the so-called Indus Script the number of singletons will increase with each new text publication (Farmer, Sproat and Witzel 2004, 36). It remains to be studied whether the number of singletons in proto-Elamite decreased over time, and if proto-Elamite like proto-cuneiform, underwent some form of standardization during the late phase of its use (a reevaluation of the results reached in Dahl 2002 may be needed).

The Excavations of Susa

Following initial surveys by English and French explorers in the latter half of the 19th century, Jacques de Morgan was able to initiate the first major excavations of Susa in 1897. Morgan, who was trained as a mining engineer, leveled the acropolis mound digging in increments of 5 meters. He had established these artificial levels after drilling “galleries” into the mound (see Dyson 1968, for an introduction to the early work at Susa). Morgan had already reached what he called “Niveau II”, an artificial level ca. 10 meters below the surface of the top of the acropolis mound by the second season (1898-9). That level would later become iconic since the entire mound was leveled to that height by the end of 1911. Only one portion of the acropolis, now known as the “Témoin de Morgan”, was left standing. Although “Niveau III” was dug into in the beginning of the 20th century it was never fully realized; the task of leveling the entire mound had become impossible, although Morgan had put in a small rail-road, and could count on as many as 1,200 workers at one point. Instead, Morgan, and his successor Roland de Mecquenem focused their efforts on a few deep surveys.

Title:Plan of Susa
Title:Plan of Susa

Proto-Elamite tablets were not found in the first two layers (levels I and II), but plans for digging deeper had already been made in the spring of 1899 (Morgan 1900, 138). The first proto-Elamite tablets were found immediately below Niveau II in trench 7, supposedly corresponding to level 14B of Le Brun 1971 figure 31. Trench 7 was apparently the central trench in what later came to be Morgan’s “Grande Tranchée”. Those first tablets (reported in Morgan 1900, 138) are probably identical with the two tablets published by Scheil in 1900 (MDP 2, 130 and 131; republished as MDP 6, 399 and 4996); they correspond to what I have called the late writing-phase, and at least two tablets were found in the same level during the later controlled excavations (see Vallat 1971 DAFI 1, 58 1 and 2). During the subsequent seasons the initial trenches were widened and deepened, and in particular Trench 7 seems to have yielded substantial numbers of proto-Elamite tablets. It seems reasonable to attribute the proto-Elamite tablets to three of the deep survey areas of Susa, Morgan's “Grande Tranchée”, and Mecquenem’s “Sondage I” and “Sondage II” (see "Plan of Susa" on the left). The central survey area apparently yielded no tablets.

History of Decipherment

Proto-Elamite is still largely undeciphered, although a majority of the material has been abailable for study for more than three quarters of a century.

Early work on proto-Elamite centered around comparing individual signs with signs from the neighboring cuneiform writing system. It has since been conclusively shown that a graphical similarity between signs from two writing systems is not proof of a semantical similarity.

For a variety of reasons it has been argued that proto-Elamite was used to write Elamite, a language which is first attested around 2300 BC. This cannot be proven at present, although it is of course a possibility. However, the earliest proto-Elamite tablets, if not all, were in fact language neutral. Although this is not the same as suggesting that they could be read by anyone, it means that they were not coding speech.

Since the publication of Jöran Friberg's groundbreaking study, concerning ancient Near Eastern metrology, in the seventies, the decipherment of the world's earliest writing systems has been moving steadily away from a traditional linguistic research mapping individual signs in complex strings onto the grammatical elements of a spoken language, and into the realm of history of science and related fields.

The Corpus

There are more than 1600 texts and fragments in museums around the world. The majority of the texts are in the Louvre Museum, Paris, and the National Iranian Museum, Teheran.

Title:Sample proto-Elamite tablet (MDP 6, 212). (P008012) (
Title:Sample proto-Elamite tablet (MDP 6, 212). (P008012) (

The majority of the Louvre tablets were published shortly after their discovery, only 150 - 200 tablets and fragments remain unpublished. The first two proto-Elamite tablets were published in 1900, by Vincent Scheil (as MDP 2, 130 and 131), they were later republished as MDP 6, 399 and 4996, in 1905. The majority of the tablets in the National Iranian Museum were published in MDP 26.

List of publications of proto-Elamite tablets:

  • 198 tablets published in MDP 6 (
  • 490 tablets published in MDP 17 (
  • 50 tablets published in MDP 31 (
  • 15 tablets published in RA 50 (

The published copies are not always very reliable. Generally speaking MDP 17 and MDP 26S ranks among the better of the early publications. The early publications were all accompanied by sign-lists. As expected the number of signs grew with each text publication, and the sign-lists in the MDP volumes testify to this. However, recent collations and grapho-tactical analysis has brought the number of proto-Elamite signs down to about 1200.

Work is currently under way to publish the remaining proto-Elamite tablets in the Louvre, as well as to re-publish the previously published texts.

In the course of this work all of the Louvre proto-Elamite tablets have been collated and transliterated by J. Dahl. These transliterations are available at the CDLI.

Click here for a list of all proto-Elamite texts in the CDLI catalogue (

A revised version of Meriggi's sign-list was used to complete these transliterations.

The Sign List

  • P. Meriggi, La scrittura proto-elamica. Parte IIa: Catalogo dei segni (Rome 1974)
  • Download a copy of J. Dahl's working sign list ( (30 MB, zip archive]
  • Download a copy of J. Dahl's working sign files (, in Adobe EPS format (128 MB, zip archive]

External links

J. R. Alden, “Trade and Politics in Proto-Elamite Iran,” in: Current Anthropology Vol. 23, No. 6, December 1982, 613 – 640.

Pierre Amiet, Glyptique susienne, Volume 1 – 2 (= Mémoires de la Délégation Archaéologique en Iran 43; Paris, 1972).

Jacob L. Dahl, "proto-Elamite Sign Frequencies," in Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin (CDLB) 2002:1 ( Download a PDF copy (

Jacob L. Dahl, "Complex Graphemes in Proto-Elamite," in Cuneiform Digital Library Journal (CDLJ) 2005:3 ( Download a PDF copy (

Jacob L. Dahl, "Animal Husbandry in Susa during the Proto-Elamite Period" SMEA 47 (2005) 81-134 (PDF copy ( [7.7 MB])

Peter Damerow, “The Origins of Writing as a Problem of Historical Epistemology,” in Cuneiform Digital Library Journal (CDLJ) 2006:1 ( Download a PDF copy (

Peter Damerow and Robert K. Englund, The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya (= The American School of Prehistoric Research Bulletin 39; Cambridge, MA, 1989).

P. Delugaz, and Helene Kantor, Choga Mish. Volume I, The First Five Seasons of Excavations 1961-1971. Part 1: Text; Part 2: Plates , Abbas Alizadeh, ed. (= OIP 101; Chicago, Illinois, 1996).

Robert H. Dyson, “Early Work on the Acropolis at Susa. The Beginning of Prehistory in Iraq and Iran,” Expedition 10/4 (1968) 21-34.

Robert K. Englund, “The Proto-Elamite Script,” in: Peter Daniels and William Bright, eds. The World’s Writing Systems (1996). New York/Oxford, pp. 160-164. Download a PDF copy (

Robert K. Englund, “Elam iii. Proto-Elamite,” in Encyclopaedia Iranica VIII/3 (1998). Costa Mesa, CA, pp. 325-330. Download a PDF copy (

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. Download a PDF copy (

Steve Farmer, Richard Sproat, and Michael Witzel, “The Collapse of the Indus-Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilization,” in Electronic Journal of Vedic Studies (EJVS) Vol. 11, Issue 2, 19-57 (2004). Download a PDF copy (

Jöran Friberg, The Third Millennium Roots of Babylonian Mathematics I-II (Göteborg, 1978-79).

A. Le Brun, “Recherches stratigraphiques a l’acropole de Suse, 1969-1971,” in Cahiers de la Délégation archaéologique Française en Iran 1 (= CahDAFI 1; Paris, 1971) 163 – 216.

Leon Legrain, Empreintes de cachets élamites (=Mémoires de la Mission Archaéologique de Perse 16 (MDP 16); Paris, 1921).

Roland de Mecquenem, Épigraphie proto-élamite (= Mémoires de la Mission Archaéologique en Iran 31 (MDP 31); Paris, 1949).

Piero Meriggi, “Altsumerische und Proto-Elamische Bilderschrift,” in: Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 119/1 (1969) 156 – 163.

Piero Meriggi, La scritura proto-elamica. Parte Ia: La scritura e il contenuto dei testi (Rome, 1971).

Piero Meriggi, La scritura proto-elamica. Parte IIa: Catalogo dei segni (Rome, 1974).

Piero Meriggi, La scritura proto-elamica. Parte IIIa: Testi (Rome, 1974).

Jacques de Morgan, Recherches archéologie (= Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse 1 (MDP 1); Paris, 1900).

Jacques de Morgan, Recherches archéologie (= Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse 7 (MDP 7); Paris, 1905).

Daniel T. Potts, The Archaeology of Elam (Cambridge, UK, 1999).

Vincent Scheil, Textes de comptabilité proto-élamites (= Mémoires de la Délégation en Perse 17 (MDP 17); Paris, 1923).

Vincent Scheil, Texte de comptabilité (= Mémoires de la Mission Archaéologique en Perse 26 (MDP 26 and MDP 26); Paris, 1935).

M-J. Steve and H. Gasche, L’Acropolis de suse. Nouvelles fouilles (= Mémoires de la Délégation Archaéologique en Iran 44 (MDP 44); Paris 1971).

Matthew Stolper, “Proto-Elamite texts from Tall-I Malyan,” in: KADMOS XXIV (Berlin / New-York, 1985).

Matthew Stolper, “Account Tablet,” in: Harper, P. et. al. eds., The Royal City of Susa, Ancient Near Eastern Treasures in the Louvre (New-York, 1992).

F. Vallat, “Les documents epigraphiques de l’acropole (1969-1971),” in: Cahiers de la Délégation archaéologique Française en Iran 1 (CahDAFI 1; Paris, 1971).