Deciphering and interpreting (proto-)cuneiform

Proto-Elamite clay tablet from Susa, in the Louvre (courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s great to be back “in the field”! Well, it’s nothing exotic, really, as I went to Wolfson College, Oxford, to attend one of Dr Jacob Dahl‘s interpretation sessions, where the subject of study for this group of three students, Jacob and myself was a set of Proto-Elamite texts (yes, this is a wikipedia link; it has been approved by Jacob, for more info on cuneiform scripts, check here). When I say it’s not exotic, in fact, to me it is – well, not Wolfson that is, but Proto-Elamite, which I have never encountered before. So far, the interpretation sessions I’ve attended had to do with Latin cursive texts such as the Vindolanda tablets, or with Greek epigraphy; two scripts that belong to the group of segmental alphabet writing systems (as does the script I’m using to write this post). Proto-Elamite, in contrast, is thought to be a derived from the proto-cuneiform script; it is classified as logophonetic and seems to be at times pictographic and at times syllabic. Additionally – and non-negligibly – Proto-Elamite is one of those few ancient languages that have not yet been entirely deciphered.

So each of those interpretation sessions is a bit like a think-aloud forum, where, under the guidance of Jacob who has worked extensively on Proto-Elamite, all participants voice hypotheses of decipherment, of interpretation. Mostly discussed in this session, were signs, their meaning, their grouping and their sequences.

I don’t intend to make a full report or transcription of the session here. What I have in mind is more to share my (after-)thoughts on what seemed to be the salient differences and commonalities in method between the decipherment and interpretation of Latin or Greek scripts and the efforts to “crack” this yet undeciphered logophonetic script, without the support of my notes or of the documents that were handed out.

Line drawing of a Proto-Elamite clay tablet (courtesy of Lawrence K. Lo via

The first striking thing to me is how different the images of those tablets look from the line drawings we were given (the photo above  and the line drawing on the right are not of the same clay tablet, but compare the upper-right hand sign on both the line drawing and the photograph, and their visibility). Bear in mind that, in a drawing (and in a photograph, too), there is already some kind of interpretation going on, and, as undeciphered as the script may be, it was still less understood when the line drawings were made than it is now. Jacob actually pointed out an example where a line drawing seemed to display some unique kind of imprint while, when he inspected the actual corresponding tablet in the Louvre, he was able to recognize signs he had already encountered in other Proto-Elamite texts. That is definitely something that I’ve observed in the Latin cursive interpretation sessions: prior knowledge that prompts to see as (interpretative vision) more than to see that (descriptive vision). One avenue that I’ll have to explore in depth will be to evaluate to what extent the nature of the writing system influences these constant oscillations between the text-as-shape and the text-as-meaning.

The second thing that intrigued me was to see how, given a same A4 sheet of paper with a line drawing of a Proto-Elamite text like the one above, one participant worked with the sheet oriented portrait, two with it landscape, and the third one alternately looked at the text in portrait and landscape. Being completely new to such texts, I puzzled for a while on various questions: what was the direction of reading, what is a line, how were the signs counted in a line (or a column, depending on how the paper is oriented!). These are basic questions, but the simple fact that I was asking them and that none of the other participants seemed bothered by them, already showed how some of the knowledge is already implicit and participates in the building of expertise and its adjoined tacit knowledge. Interestingly,  when I asked about the reason for the disparity in how people looked at the text, I was given a very well constructed and rational reply that had two main arguments: one was historical and stated that at some (undetermined) point in the history of cuneiform scripts, the clay tablets have been rotated by 90 degrees, along with the direction of writing; the other was a reinforcement of the notion that it’s a good idea to be able to make abstraction of the orientation of the text, to avoid the temptation of attributing the text to a time period according to its orientation. That specific question of dating according to features of the text or its layout rang a bell. I’ve seen this before with Latin cursive, but under a palaeographical guise.

The last thing I’d like to mention here is the dialogical nature of the type of argumentation I witnessed. The collaborative aspects of the session were obvious, and everyone played along in this charade deciphering game they were presented with: for each new hypothesis emitted, there was plethora of support and rebuttal, instinct and uncertainty, doubting, convincing and self-convincing, connecting and cross-referencing, contradicting and reinforcing. This is really exciting as one of the main reasons why I’m attending these sessions is to understand how one becomes confident enough in one’s interpretation to publish it, discuss it, convince others until it is either naturally accepted as new knowledge or eventually supplanted by a “better” interpretation; alternately, it can be simply rejected, or linger at the centre of heated expert debates.

I’ve enjoyed this little memory-based exercise on this session! Now to go and process it in full.

And I’m very much looking forward to the next one…

Ségolène Tarte

I am a senior researcher at the e-Research Centre, University of Oxford, UK, where my research interests revolve around the seamless integration of digital tools within Humanities research, the impact of digital approaches on Humanities methodologies as well as the impact of Humanities methodologies on the development of digital tools. These interests brought three main themes to the fore in my research endeavours: materiality and its relationship to the digital; expertise and the multifarious questions of methodology in the Humanities; and multi/inter-disciplinarity and how that affects research processes. Originally an image processing specialist, my research focus turned to the Digital Humanities, when I started working with Classicists on images of Ancient papyri. The methodologies that I draw upon in my research are inspired and informed by ethnography, philosophy, and the cognitive sciences.

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2 thoughts on “Deciphering and interpreting (proto-)cuneiform”

  1. I am taking a brief course on global history. I am curious about how people have come to interpret these tablets of cuneiform. One thing that I have been thinking about is that these older civilizations, that have recorded things on tablets like you have discussed above, might’ve had a much more advanced writing system than we think. We know that the Egyptians had a lot of writing on papyrus- the Ebers papyrus for example and Hammurabi’s code on stone tablets. But, maybe everyday farm type accounting papers and small pieces of art have vanished all together. Our civilization today still has large primitive type “documents” like the Georgia Guidestones and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. If another civilization maybe 5,000 years from now, found these, they would think that we were just on the brink of common fluent literacy (or nowhere close to there). But all the housing deeds and newspapers and handouts that are commonplace are going to be completely gone by then.

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