Multi-storied pasts

The Archaeology of Elam
December 3, 1999

Elam is the name given in the Bible to the province of Persia, called Susiana by the classical geographers, from Susa or Shushan, its capital. The Elamite civilisation, less well known than its neighbour Mesopotamia, was geographically more expansive and politically more heterogeneous, frequently consisting of a number of independent kingdoms.

D. T. Potts traces the archaeological and textual history of Elam from its first entry on the Near Eastern stage, in the 3rd millennium BC, to the last Elamite words written in the medieval period. This is the most comprehensive and detailed study of the many Elamite worlds that existed over the course of the millennia. The book, with its many illustrations, charts, maps and detailed text, is best approached as a reference work. As a narrative, it traces the events recorded in Mesopotamian and Elamite texts (those few that are translated or understood) as well as a summary of the archaeological excavations that revealed monuments, rock art and settlements.

The textual history of Elam tells us one story, frequently written by their adversaries in Mesopotamia, while archaeology tells us another story.Potts, in full control of both the textual and archaeological record, weaves together a remarkably rich history.

In discussing the precursors of Elam the author dismisses the Proto-Elamite texts as ancestral to the later Elamite language. Dated to the end of the 4th millennium BC, these texts are among the earliest written documents. Potts rightly emphasises the Mesopotamian influence on the origin of the Proto-Elamite texts. That said, one wonders what language other than Elamite the Proto-Elamite texts could refer to in light of the fact that they are distributed over precisely the same geographical region in which Elamite was later spoken.

By the end of the 3rd millennium BC the first Elamite kingdom initiates what is thematic over the millennia: relations of hostility between the Elamite and Mesopotamian kingdoms. In the reign of the great Elamite King Puzur-Inshushinak, c. 2100, Meso-potamia and Elam experienced a renaissance of "internationalism". At this time, the urban civilisation in the Indus valley, the tapestry of cultures on the Iranian plateau, the complex urban societies of Central Asia and the Persian Gulf all interacted with the Elamite and Mesopotamian kingdoms. International commerce, warfare, marriages of political alliance and "technology transfer" were the order of the day. For the first time, archaeologists recovered numerous artefacts characteristic of one cultural area in the context of another. The texts detail royal relations, warfare and commerce while the archaeological evidence suggests that wide-ranging interaction wed distant areas, from the eastern Mediterranean to the Indus valley, and from Central Asia to the Arabian peninsula.

On the one hand, scholars divide the study of Elam into the study of written texts and the archaeological excavations, and, on the other hand, into the study of the early periods, the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC, and the study of the later Neo-Elamites, and their relations with the Assyrian and the later Achaemenid empires. With equal expertise in each of these divisions, the author offers a masterful synthesis of the many Elams. Within the Achaemenid period we have family archives, the Egibi family from Babylon or the Murashu family from Nippur, which Potts examines to address the complexities of "cultural identity". This is the value of the book. The Elamites, whether waging war with Sargon the Great or trading with the Babylonians, are placed in a context of cultural mosaic, a world in which acculturation and assimilation are as paramount as warfare and negotiation. Potts is explicit in viewing ethnicity as permeable and transient.

Few books on Elam have ever extended Elamite history as far as this. The latter-day Elamites, which Greek and Latin sources spoke of as Elymais and Elymaeans, are thoroughly reviewed. In fact, the Book of Ezra (IV, 9) refers to Elymais as a distinctive region inhabited by people different from those inhabiting Susa.

There is a great deal more to be learned about the world of Elam. The extensive Elamite texts recovered from the excavations at Haft Tepe in Iran have yet to be read. The Elamite texts remain a challenge to linguists and their meaning remains largely elusive. Until we have new excavations in Iran or until the Elamite texts are made available, Potts's volume will remain the standard reference work.

C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky is professor of archaeology, Harvard University, Massachusetts, United States.

 

The Archaeology of Elam: Formation and Transformation of an Ancient Iranian State

Author - D. T. Potts
ISBN - 0 521 56496 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £60.00
Pages - 940

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