The Decipherment of Linear Elamite Writing and a Curious Way of Doing  Journalism: A Rejoinder to Andrew Lawler and the Smithsonian Magazine – A Guest Post by Gianni Marchesi

The Decipherment of Linear Elamite Writing and a Curious Way of Doing  Journalism: A Rejoinder to Andrew Lawler and the Smithsonian Magazine

An article published by Andrew Lawler a few days ago in the Smithsonian Magazine, the official  journal of the Smithsonian Institute, bears an intriguing title: “Have Scholars Finally Deciphered a  Mysterious Ancient Script?” 

I am one of five scholars who recently claimed to have deciphered Linear Elamite. When I started  reading Lawler’s article, I quickly realized that it was focusing on an article of my colleagues and  mine, which appeared in July in the last issue of the journal Zeitschrift für Assyriologie und  Vorderasitische Archäologie (henceforth ZA): 

“The Decipherment of Linear Elamite Writing,” by François Desset, Kambiz Tabibzadeh, Matthieu  Kervran, Gian Pietro Basello, and Gianni Marchesi. 

Andrew Lawler is a widely respected journalist. His website notes that “he has written more than a  thousand newspaper and magazine articles from more than two dozen countries,” including The  New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and Science 

It was, thus, dismaying to read the following in his piece: “If the findings are correct—and the  claim is hotly debated by the researchers’ peers—…” 

Which peers is he referring to? And what debate? As far as my co-authors and I are aware, our ZA paper—which underwent a double-blind peer review—has only received positive reactions. Moreover, the incontrovertible facts and solid arguments presented in support of the decipherment  are such that I would not expect there to be much disagreement about our conclusions. That said, the article in question has only just appeared and begun circulating in the scholarly community. It is too soon for it to have generated the kind of scholarly debate Lawler suggests it has. 

It was additionally frustrating to note a major infelicity in Lawler’s article: the singling out of one  of the authors of the ZA paper, François Desset, with no mention of his four co-authors. The paper  we wrote was the product of our collective efforts. Lawler’s omission of this detail is mystifying. Journalists, no less than scholars, should be wedded to facts. 

Lawler’s article gives the false impression that François Desset was solely responsible for deciphering (or, for claiming to have deciphered) Linear Elamite, with the support of bit players,  anonymous members of “a team of European scholars” under his direction (note, additionally, that  Kambiz Tabibzadeh is Iranian-American, not European). What was Lawler’s purpose in obscuring  the collaborative nature of our decipherment work? Was it to provide his readers with the romantic  image of a modern-day Champollion (the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphics)? Was it to simplify  the story, by focusing all criticism on just one member of our team? The decipherment of Linear Elamite was only possible thanks to the combined efforts and talents of five scholars, but Lawler  deprives readers of this crucial fact. Does he believe they are not able to track such details? 

After reading Lawler’s article, the decipherment team wrote to him requesting appropriate revisions  to his article, to which he responded “Smithsonian’s editorial policy is not to cite every author in a  paper unless there are only one or two co-authors. This is a usual practice among all U.S. major  publications, including Science, The New York Times, and the Washington Post.” 

Brian Wolly, Digital Editorial Director of the Smithsonian Magazine, weighed in similarly: “This  policy exists for readability and concision.”  

This practice is reasonable in cases of research groups with specified team leaders or of papers with  exceedingly large numbers of cited authors, such as papers on genetic studies, which can have hundreds of named authors. But neither is true in our case. As we suggested to Lawler, he could  simply have referred to us, collectively, as “the authors” with no compromise to the readability or  concision of his article. It is a fact of some importance that among the writers of our study there was  no lead author (we were simply a group of scholars contributing equally to a group effort). What’s  the use of the Smithsonian Magazine’s editorial policy if it obscures the truth? Lawler simply  invented a lead author—Desset—with no concern for the ethics of accurate reporting. 

Journalists should be more attentive to the critical feedback of the persons they write about. In the  case of the decipherment team, our sole interest is that our work is properly presented to the public.  Journalistic license is, of course, permissible, but not when it results in a distortion of the facts. 

Finally, for the benefit of the readers of Lawler’s article in the Smithsonian Magazine, it is worth  pointing out a few additional minor inaccuracies: 

1) “Part of the challenge is that the Elamite language—which may have been spoken in the region  for more than 3,000 years—has no known relatives, making it difficult to know what sounds the  symbols might represent. ‘The translations in some cases remain problematic,’ the authors  acknowledge.” 

Yes, “the translations in some cases remain problematic,” but not because of the difficulty of  reconstructing the sounds of the symbols (to use Lawler’s terminology). In fact, the phonetic values  of the vast majority of signs are well-established, albeit with some approximation, as is always the  case for reconstructed ancient languages. It remains problematic because the grammar and the  lexicon of the Elamite language are still imperfectly understood. 

2) “But Desset argues that Linear Elamite takes an approach more like the modern alphabet. He  concludes that the script draws solely on syllables, making it the oldest known writing system to do  so.” 

This is not correct. Linear Elamite is not a syllabic writing system; it is an alpha-syllabary. Linear  Elamite signs represent syllables of the type CV (consonant plus vowel; e.g., /pa/) or have  alphabetic values (e.g., /p/, /a/). Despite its alphabetic components, the Elamite writing system did  not exploit this potential and never became a purely alphabetic script. 

3) “Desset says his data strongly suggests that Proto-Elamite is a predecessor of Linear Elamite, as  French experts first asserted in the early 20th century. That theory gets little support from scholars  such as Oxford University’s Jacob Dahl and the University of Toronto’s Kathryn Kelley. They  argue that Proto-Elamite is likely a mix of syllables and logograms and underscore the 800-year gap  between the two writing systems.”

This way of presenting things is quite misleading: there is no contrast at all between what Desset  says and what Dahl and Kelley (Dahl’s former pupil) argue. It is rather the journalist who has  created such contrast. In fact, it is self-evident that the Linear Elamite signs derive from the older  Proto-Elamite signs. It is equally self-evident that Proto-Elamite and Linear Elamite function differently (the latter, significantly, has no signs representing words—the so-called logograms). No  one claims that they work in  the same way. However, it is entirely plausible that the phonetic values  we reconstruct for Linear Elamite signs were the same ones for their Proto-Elamite “ancestors.” If  that does prove to be true, then scholars should be able to read those parts of the Proto Elamite texts —if any—that were written phonetically.

Gianni Marchesi, also on behalf of Gian Pietro Basello, François Desset and Kambiz Tabibzadeh.