Proto-Elamite Sign Frequencies

CDLB 2002:1

Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin (ISSN: 1540-8760)

Published on 2002-04-29

© Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License except when noted otherwise and in the case of artifact images which follow the CDLI terms of use.

Jacob L. Dahl ORCID logo

University of Oxford

proto-cuneiform, proto-Elamite, sign-list

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0000629.

§1. Efforts to decipher the proto-Elamite writing system[1] have long been hampered by the absence of basic tools such as a reliable sign list. Recently, the CDLI team has transliterated all known proto-Elamite texts using the sign list of P. Meriggi.[2] We currently count approximately 1,600 texts and more than 10,000 lines of text.[3] From this raw data set we have produced a sign list with ca. 1,900 non-numerical signs.[4] This number is deceptively high, as discussed below. Except for the fact that some of the proto-Elamite texts appear to be numero-ideographic, while others appear to have a more developed structure, we have found no internal development in the writing system.[5] The sign repertoire of the much later so-called linear Elamite shows no resemblance to that of the proto-Elamite; the few similar ideograms — the linear inscriptions lack numerical notations entirely — are graphically as close to the signs of the ancient Chinese oracle bone inscriptions as they are to the much older proto- Elamite signs.[6]


§2. In a recent publication, P. Damerow presented statistics of proto-cuneiform signs frequencies[7] and concluded that the rapid development in sign forms visible in the corpus indicated the way in which writing began.[8] Initially proto-writing featured a large body of signs and variants which later pro-gressed into a system made up of a limited number of signs in a standardized repertoire. An investiga-tion of the frequency of the proto-Elamite signs suggests a statistical distribution of signs resembling that of proto-cuneiform. In both writing systems, a multitude of signs occur only once, and a small core of signs were used regularly throughout the entire body of texts.[9]


§3. Of the approximately 1,900 non-numerical signs, ca. 1,050 appear only once, ca. 300 signs appear twice. Approximately 1,700 signs are represented a maximum of 9 times.

TABLE 1: Frequency 1-9

attested one time attested two times attested a maximum of 9 times
1050 signs 300 signs 1700 signs


§4. A number of signs are attested more frequently:

TABLE 2: Frequency 100+[10]

100+ 200+ 400+ 500+ 700+
M305 (107) M387 (206) M218 (453) M388 (528) M288 (709)
M36 (128) M9 (213)      
M32 (132) M297 (222)      
M66 (139) M157 (247)      
M1 (152) M346 (253)      
M263 (164) M54 (266)      
M376 (172) M36-A-Z (221)      
M96 (194) M371 (290)      


§5. If we exclude the variants or group them together we see changes in the statistical distribution of signs as indicated by the examble M36 as shown by table 2. It is clear that in some, and possibly in most cases the variants can be discounted.[11] In table 2, M36[12] has been highlighted and appears twice: in the group of 100+ and in the group 200+. M36 is one of the most productive signs of the proto- Elamite sign repertoire, but many of its variants occur only very rarely. When all the variants are added together the frequency of M36 jumps from 128 to 221 occurrences. The same holds true for certain other signs such as M387, but not for all signs.


§6. Except for M157[13] and M346,[14] all of the most frequent signs[15] in our statistical analysis are signs of either grain products, containers[16] or persons.[17]


§7. The primary objective of this brief investigation is to indicate how we are working on our data set, as well as to facilitate the creation of a new sign list. The new sign list will be electronic, and it will feature sorting possibilities according to both graphic and semantic value, hopefully aiding the further study of proto-Elamite.

TABLE 3: Drawings of the most frequent proto-Elamite sign
Table 3


1. The creation of the proto-Elamite writing system followed rapidly upon that of the proto-cuneiform writing system of neighboring Southern Mesopotamia. Proto-Elamite exhibits a few ideographic loans from proto-cuneiform and a nearly complete adoption of its metrological systems and numerical signs. Proto-Elamite was used over a wide geographical area comparable to the extent of modern day Iran, stretching from Susa in the west – in close proximity to Mesopotamia – to Shahr-i Sokhta in the east – closer to the Indus valley than to Susa.

2. P. Meriggi, La scrittura proto-elamica. Parte IIa: Catalogo dei segni. (Roma: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 1974). The problems faced in using this sign list have been commented upon in recent publications [P. Damerow and R. Englund; The Proto-Elamite Texts from Tepe Yahya, 1989. And again R. Englund, The State of Decipherment of Proto-Elamite, forthcoming (Preprint no. 183 at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science web-server:]

3. Compare this to the 6,000 proto-cuneiform texts with ca. 50,000 occurrences of non-numerical signs.

4. Although generated electronically this sign list follows that of P. Meriggi, see footnote no. 2.

5. Proto-cuneiform, on the other hand has yielded evidence for an evolution in the repertoire of signs, see R. K. Englund, “Texts From The Late Uruk Period,” in P. Attinger et al., eds., Mesopotamien, Späturuk-Zeit und Frühdynastische Zeit (= OBO 160/1: Freiburg 1998), p. 67.

6. The Chinese oracle bones from Anyang are traditionally dated to the Shang period ca. 1200 to 1050 BC. However, precursors predate these inscriptions by several centuries. I do not suggest any relationship between the two except for a purely graphic similarity.

7. P. Damerow, “The Origins of Writing as a Problem of Historical Epistemology” (1999), p.11 - 13. [Preprint no. 114 at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science web-server:]. See also R. Englund, 1998, p. 68 fn. 131, for a comparable survey, and see p. 70-71 for a list of the most frequent proto-cuneiform signs.

8. P. Damerow, 1999, p.11-12.

9. No attempts have been made to investigate a possible regional or institutional variation in the sign repertoire

10. M36 is highlighted to compare its frequency when computing each variant alone as a unique sign and when counting all variants together.

11. In P. Meriggi’s sign list of ca. 400 entries, the signs are grouped together based on graphic similarity. The same was the case with the first sign list of the archaic texts from Uruk. A. Falkenstein’s sign list of the archaic signs, ATU 1, included ca. 890 ideographic signs. The sign list of H. Nissen and W. Green, ATU 2, brought this number down to ca. 770 ideograms. These numbers were achieved based in many instances only on graphic similarities of the signs (R. Englund, 1998, p. 66-67). The sign list of the archaic signs was later expanded to cover all variants and the number reached 1,900. Note that this agrees well with our result for the proto- Elamite sign list. The archaic sign list may be reduced to less than 900 entries by removing sign-combinations and derivations (Englund, 1998, p. 68), and may be reduced even further with continuing contextual analy-sis. We hope to achieve the same reduction in numbers of signs in the proto-Elamite sign repertoire once the semantic grouping and exclusion of variants proceedes. The proto-Elamite sign list of J. de Morgan published with V. Scheil’s MDP 6, pp. 85-114, contains 989 signs (pp. 83-85 is a sign list of 62 linear Elamite signs). A sign list with 1,582 entries was prepared for Scheil’s MDP 17 by Mlle. M.-M. de Mecquenem (pp. 31-66). MDP 26 has no sign list. The sign list in MDP 31 (by MM. R. De Mecquenem) pp. 44-146 contains 5,529 signs (pp. 147-150 is a sign concordance between proto-Elamite and cuneiform signs!).

12. See table 3 for images of the signs discussed here.

13. A common header in the proto-Elamite corpus, M157 has been interpreted by the editors of MDP as either a granary (De Mecquenem in MDP 31), or as a proto-Elamite version of the Mesopotamian sign DUB (tablet) (V. Scheil MDP 6 and following). In his “Essai de déchiffrement de textes en écriture proto-Élamite” (MDP 6 pp. 119ff.), V. Scheil translated the proto-Elamite texts according to a system of transliteration values adopted from cuneiform. In his notes to MDP 17, 1 in MDP 17 p. 1 V. Scheil wrote: “Le premier signe de la tablette est préliminaire et indique un compte. Comme en babylonien (?), il figurerait la tablette elle-même. Deux autre signes (dont le premier est composé) seraient les noms de personnes.” The question mark is Sheil’s own. The first sign in this text is M157.

14. Although M346 is graphically closest to the proto-cuneiform sign MAŠ, it seems to have had the same meaning as the proto-cuneiform sign UDUa.

15. Leaving aside M1 (one horizontal stroke) and M9 (two horizontal strokes), which are both assumed to be signs pertaining to the structure of the document rather than to the semantics.

16. M32, M36, M66, M218, M288, M297, and M305.

17. M54, M371, M387, and M388.

Version: 29 April 2002


Cite this Article
Dahl, Jacob L. 2002. “Proto-Elamite Sign Frequencies.” Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin 2002 (1).
Dahl, J. L. (2002). Proto-Elamite Sign Frequencies. Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin, 2002(1).
Dahl, J. L. (2002) “Proto-Elamite Sign Frequencies,” Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin, 2002(1). Available at: (Accessed: April 17, 2024).
	note = {[Online; accessed 2024-04-17]},
	address = {Oxford; Berlin; Los Angeles},
	author = {Dahl, Jacob L.},
	journal = {Cuneiform Digital Library Bulletin},
	issn = {1540-8760},
	number = {1},
	year = {2002},
	publisher = {Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative},
	title = {Proto-{Elamite} {Sign} {Frequencies}},
	url = {},
	volume = {2002},

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