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Susa III/ Proto-Elamite cylinder seal with bulls and lion, 3100-2900 BC, Louvre Museum, reference Sb 6166. Susa III or Proto-Elamite cylinder seal 3150-2800 BC Louvre Museum Sb 6166.jpg
Susa III/ Proto-Elamite cylinder seal with bulls and lion, 3100-2900 BC, Louvre Museum, reference Sb 6166.
West Asia non political.jpg
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Location of Susa, central location of the Susa III/ Prote-Elamite period, in West Asia.

The Proto-Elamite period, also known as Susa III , is the time from ca. 3400 BC to 2500 BC in the area of Elam. [3] In archaeological terms this corresponds to the late Banesh period, and it is recognized as the oldest civilization in Iran.

Elam ancient Pre-Iranic civilization

Elam was an ancient Pre-Iranian civilization centered in the far west and southwest of what is now modern-day Iran, stretching from the lowlands of what is now Khuzestan and Ilam Province as well as a small part of southern Iraq. The modern name Elam stems from the Sumerian transliteration elam(a), along with the later Akkadian elamtu, and the Elamite haltamti. Elamite states were among the leading political forces of the Ancient Near East. In classical literature Elam was also known as Susiana, a name derived from its capital Susa.

Banesh village in Fars, Iran

Banesh is a village in Beyza District, Sepidan County, Fars Province, Iran. At the 2006 census, its population was 2,904, in 688 families.


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

Bronze Age Prehistoric period and age studied in archaeology, part of the Holocene Epoch

The Bronze Age is a historical period characterized by the use of bronze, and in some areas proto-writing, and other early features of urban civilization. The Bronze Age is the second principal period of the three-age Stone-Bronze-Iron system, as proposed in modern times by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, for classifying and studying ancient societies.

Elamite cuneiform was a logo-syllabic script used to write the Elamite language. The complete corpus of Elamite cuneiform consists of c. 20,000 tablets and fragments. The majority belong to the Achaemenid era, and contain primarily economic records.


During the period 8000–3700 BC, the Fertile Crescent witnessed the spread of small settlements supported by agricultural surplus. Geometric tokens emerged to be used to manage stewardship of this surplus. [4] The earliest tokens now known are those from two sites in the Zagros region of Iran: Tepe Asiab and Ganj-i-Dareh Tepe. [5]

Fertile Crescent crescent-shaped region containing the moist and fertile land of Western Asia, and the Nile Valley and Nile Delta of northeast Africa

The Fertile Crescent is a crescent-shaped region in the Middle East, spanning modern-day Iraq, Israel, Palestinian Territories, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, and Jordan as well as the southeastern fringe of Turkey and the western fringes of Iran. Some authors also include Cyprus.

Stewardship is an ethic that embodies the responsible planning and management of resources. The concepts of stewardship can be applied to the environment and nature, economics, health, property, information, theology, etc.

Ganj Dareh Iranian national heritage site

Ganj Dareh is a Neolithic settlement in the Iranian Kurdistan. It is located in the Harsin County in east of Kermanshah Province, in the central Zagros Mountains.

The Mesopotamian civilization emerged during the period 3700–2900 BC amid the development of technological innovations such as the plough, sailing boats and copper metal working. Clay tablets with pictographic characters appeared in this period to record commercial transactions performed by the temples. [4]

Mesopotamia Historical region within the Tigris–Euphrates river system

Mesopotamia is a historical region of Western Asia situated within the Tigris–Euphrates river system, in modern days roughly corresponding to most of Iraq, Kuwait, the eastern parts of Syria, Southeastern Turkey, and regions along the Turkish–Syrian and Iran–Iraq borders.

Plough tool or farm implement

A plough (UK) or plow is a tool or farm implement used for initial cultivation to loosen or turn the soil in preparation for sowing seed or planting. Ploughs were traditionally drawn by working animals such as oxen and horses, but in modern farms are drawn by tractors. A plough may be made of wood, iron, or steel frame with an attached blade or stick used to cut and loosen the soil. It has been a basic instrument for most of history, and is one of the most significant inventions. The earliest ploughs were wheelless, with the Romans using a wheelless plough called the aratrum, but Celtic peoples began using wheeled ploughs during the Roman era.

The Chalcolithic, a name derived from the Greek: χαλκός khalkós, "copper" and from λίθος líthos, "stone" or Copper Age, also known as the Eneolithic or Aeneolithic is an archaeological period which researchers usually regard as part of the broader Neolithic. In the context of Eastern Europe, archaeologists often prefer the term "Eneolithic" to "Chalcolithic" or other alternatives.

The most important Proto-Elamite sites are Susa and Anshan. Another important site is Tepe Sialk, where the only remaining Proto-Elamite ziggurat is still seen. Texts in the undeciphered Proto-Elamite script found in Susa are dated to this period. It is thought that the Proto-Elamites were in fact Elamites (Elamite speakers), because of the many cultural similarities (for example, the building of ziggurats), and because no large-scale migration to this area seems to have occurred between the Proto-Elamite period and the later Elamites. But because their script is yet to be deciphered, this theory remains uncertain.

Susa Ancient city in Iran

Susa was an ancient city of the Proto-Elamite, Elamite, First Persian Empire, Seleucid, Parthian, and Sasanian empires of Iran, and one of the most important cities of the Ancient Near East. It is located in the lower Zagros Mountains about 250 km (160 mi) east of the Tigris River, between the Karkheh and Dez Rivers. The site now "consists of three gigantic mounds, occupying an area of about one square kilometer, known as the Apadana mound, the Acropolis mound, and the Ville Royale mound."

Anshan (Persia) ancient city

Anshan, modern Tall-i Malyan/Tal-I Malyun/Tal-e Malyan, was an ancient city in Persia. It was located in the Zagros Mountains in southwestern Iran, approximately 46 kilometres (29 mi) north of Shiraz and 43 kilometres (27 mi) west of Persepolis in the Beyza/Ramjerd plain, in the province of Fars. Its location serves as a landmark for Elamite studies.

Tepe Sialk human settlement

Tepe Sialk is a large ancient archeological site in a suburb of the city of Kashan, Isfahan Province, in central Iran, close to Fin Garden. The culture that inhabited this area has been linked to the Zayandeh River Culture.

Some anthropologists, such as John Alden, maintain that Proto-Elamite influence grew rapidly at the end of the 4th millennium BC and declined equally rapidly with the establishment of maritime trade in the Persian Gulf several centuries later.

Persian Gulf An arm of the Indian Ocean in western Asia

The Persian Gulf is a mediterranean sea in Western Asia. The body of water is an extension of the Indian Ocean through the Strait of Hormuz and lies between Iran to the northeast and the Arabian Peninsula to the southwest. The Shatt al-Arab river delta forms the northwest shoreline.

Proto-Elamite pottery dating back to the last half of the 5th millennium BC has been found in Tepe Sialk, where Proto-Elamite writing, the first form of writing in Iran, has been found on tablets of this date. The first cylinder seals come from the Proto-Elamite period, as well. [6]

Proto-Elamite script

Standard reconstruction of the development of writing, and position of Proto-Elamite. There is a possibility that the Egyptian script was invented independently from the Mesopotamian script. Development of writing.jpg
Standard reconstruction of the development of writing, and position of Proto-Elamite. There is a possibility that the Egyptian script was invented independently from the Mesopotamian script.

It is uncertain whether the Proto-Elamite script was the direct predecessor of Linear Elamite. Both scripts remain largely undeciphered, and it is mere speculation to postulate a relationship between the two.

A few Proto-Elamite signs seem either to be loans from the slightly older proto-cuneiform (Late Uruk) tablets of Mesopotamia, or perhaps more likely, to share a common origin. Whereas proto-cuneiform is written in visual hierarchies, Proto-Elamite is written in an in-line style: numerical signs follow the objects they count; some non-numerical signs are 'images' of the objects they represent, although the majority are entirely abstract.

Economical tablet in Proto-Elamite, Suse III, Louvre Museum, reference Sb 15200, circa 3100-2850 BC. P1180316 Louvre Suse III tablette economique Sb15200 rwk.jpg
Economical tablet in Proto-Elamite, Suse III, Louvre Museum, reference Sb 15200, circa 3100-2850 BC.
Proto-Elamite tablet with transcription. Proto-Elamite tablet with transcription.jpg
Proto-Elamite tablet with transcription.

Proto-Elamite was used for a brief period around 3000 BC [12] [13] (Jemdet Nasr period in Mesopotamia), whereas Linear Elamite is attested for a similarly brief period in the last quarter of the 3rd millennium BC.

Proponents of an Elamo-Dravidian relationship have looked for similarities between the Proto-Elamite script and the Indus script. [14]

Inscription corpus

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. 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 number of tablets recovered):

None of the inscribed objects from Ghazir, Chogha 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 Tepe 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.

Decipherment attempts

Although Proto-Elamite remains undeciphered, 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 graphotactical analysis.

While the Elamite language has been suggested as a likely candidate underlying the Proto-Elamite inscriptions, there is no positive evidence of this. The earliest Proto-Elamite inscriptions, being purely ideographical, do not in fact contain any linguistic information, and following Friberg's 1978/79 study of Ancient Near Eastern metrology, decipherment attempts have moved away from linguistic methods.

In 2012, Dr Jacob Dahl of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, 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. [15] Dahl assisted in making the images of nearly 1600 Proto-Elamite tablets online. [16]

Proto-Elamite cylinder seals

Proto-Elamite seals follow the seals of the Uruk period, with which they share many stylistic elements, but display more individuality and a more lively rendering. [17]

See also

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  2. "Site officiel du musée du Louvre".
  3. Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C. (1971-01-01). "The Proto-Elamite Settlement at Tepe Yaḥyā". Iran. 9: 87–96. doi:10.2307/4300440. JSTOR   4300440.
  4. 1 2 Salvador Carmona & Mahmoud Ezzamel:Accounting And Forms Of Accountability In Ancient Civilizations: Mesopotamia And Ancient Egypt, IE Business School, IE Working Paper WP05-21, 2005), p.6 "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-19. Retrieved 2011-09-02.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  5. Two precursors of writing: plain and complex tokens
  6. "The Habib Anavian Collection: Iranian Art from the 5th Millennium B.C. to the 7th Century A.D." website of the Anavian Gallery, New York. Retrieved 22 October 2012.
  7. "Statuette of a Striding Figure". The Art Institute of Chicago.
  8. "Kneeling bull holding a spouted vessel,ca. 3100–2900 B.C. Proto-Elamite".
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  10. Senner, Wayne M. (1991). The Origins of Writing. University of Nebraska Press. p. 77. ISBN   9780803291676.
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  14. David McAlpin: "Linguistic prehistory: the Dravidian situation", in Madhav M. Deshpande and Peter Edwin Hook: Aryan and Non-Aryan in India, p.175-189
  15. Coughlan, Sean (2012-10-25). "Breakthrough in world's oldest undeciphered writing". The "Reflectance Transformation Imaging System" from Oxford University in use at the Louvre Museum to obtain enhanced images of the writing. BBC News Online . Retrieved 2013-02-07.
  16. Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. University of California, Los Angeles. Retrieved 9 March 2015.
  17. The Royal City of Susa: Ancient Near Eastern Treasures in the Louvre. Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1992. p. 70. ISBN   9780870996511.