Ancient writing systems in the Mediterranean

A critical guide to electronic resources


edited by: Salvatore Gaspa

  • Introduction
  • Ancient Writing Systems
  • Further information

Elamite is the language that was spoken in Elam, the region situated in southwestern Iran (the modern provinces of Khūzestān and Fārs) from the 3rd to the 1st millennium BC. The Elamite name of the language is not known; in Sumerian it was called eme Elama, “language of Elam”. The land of Elam was called in Elamite Hatamti or Haltamti. The majority of the texts documenting this language come from the cities of Susa (Shush), Persepolis, and Anshan (Tall-i Malyan) as well as from other sites in Khūzestān and Fārs. Elamite is unrelated to any known language of the Ancient Near East, although some scholars have investigated possible connections with Caucasian, Altaic and Dravidian languages. Elamite is an agglutinative language, with fewer suffixes than Sumerian and Hurrian. Its inflectional system contains nominal and verbal suffixes and clitics. During the first millennium BC Elamite was presumably under the influence of Old Persian, since new case-markers, postpositions, and loanwords came into use. Nouns were divided into two genders, animate and inanimate.

A first historical phase of the language could be represented by the so-called Proto-Elamite, from the mid-4th millennium BC to the 3rd millenium BC included, but it remains undeciphered at present (see Proto-Elamite for details). The Elamite language may be divided into four dialects: Old Elamite, which is documented from the period of the political supremacy of the dynasty of Akkad (ca. 2300-2100 BC) to 1500 BC; Middle Elamite, attested from ca 1500 BC to 1000 BC; Neo-Elamite, which was used during the last period of political independence of the kingdom of Elam (717-640 BC); and Achaemenid Elamite (end of 6th - end of 5th centuries BC), which developed as one of the official languages of the Persian empire. Instead, nothing is certain about the death of Elamite. The possibility that the existence of the people known as Elymeans in late third century might be a proof of the survival of this language is a matter of speculation.

The first Elamite text is a treaty stipulated between the Elamite king Hita and the king of Akkad Naram-Sin (23th century BC). In general, the documentary evidence from this period is scanty and comes almost exclusively from Susa; other Old Elamite texts from the 3rd millennium BC include incantation texts. The Middle Elamite period is documented by inscriptions on clay bricks, stone and metal objects, generally concerning the construction of temples and the consecration of objects to Elamite gods. These texts show a wider distribution in the region, as witnessed by documents found in Lyan (Bandar Bushehr), Dur-Untaš (Chogha Zambil), and Kapnak (Haft Tepe). Neo-Elamite textual evidence comprises royal inscriptions, hundreds of economic documents from Susa, around twenty letters from Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, juridical texts, religious texts and an omen text. Elamite continued to be used in the Achaemenid period, as witnessed by the Elamite royal inscriptions of the Achaemenid rulers (especially the Elamite version of the rock inscription of Darius I at Behistun, near Kermanshah, alongside the Old Persian and the Akkadian versions) and by the numerous Elamite clay tablets of economic and administrative content found in Persepolis and in other sites (for example, in Argištihenele). These tablets, some of which also bear annotations in Aramaic, represent the great majority of the Achaemenid documents written from the end of the sixth to the mid-fifth centuries BC and show that Elamite language and script were still an important part of scribes’ training.

Ancient Writing Systems

  1. Elamite
  2. Proto-Elamite

Further information

  1. Bibliography