Linear Elamite has puzzled scholars since it was first discovered in excavations at the city of Susa (biblical Shushan) in 1903. The undeciphered script was used in southern Iran from 2300 until 1880 B.C.E., when it was replaced by Mesopotamian cuneiform.
Many ancient scripts have been deciphered by artifacts that feature both the unknown script and at least one known script that record the same message. This was the case for Egyptian hieroglyphs, which were unlocked by the famous Rosetta Stone that contained the same text written in hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Greek. The decipherment of Linear Elamite, however, was a more complex process. Although some artifacts contain both Linear Elamite and cuneiform, the two scripts never seem to translate each other. Such occurrences allowed only a handful of signs to be deciphered.
Recognizing these limitations, a team of scholars decided to take a different path.1 They recognized that a group of silver beakers with Linear Elamite script texts were recording similar titles and prayers as royal Elamite inscriptions written in cuneiform. Although the texts were not identical, they were able to identify numerous personal, geographic, and divine names. From there, they succeeded in slowly unlocking the script sign by sign.
The team identified and deciphered 72 different signs—more than 95 percent of attested signs in Linear Elamite inscriptions. As further excavations in Iran are carried out, additional Linear Elamite inscriptions might surface that can unlock the remaining signs.