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Work Proto-Elamite tablet with seal mark

Department of Near Eastern Antiquities: Iran

Grande tablette de comptabilité avec empreinte représentant les figures mythologiques du lion et du taureau, en attitude humaine et se domptant alternativement

© 2009 RMN / Franck Raux

Near Eastern Antiquities


The invention of writing corresponded to the economical needs of a society at a time when the development of cities was giving rise to increasing number of exchanges and transactions. This form of writing was inscribed on a soft material, clay. The first tablets date from the Late Uruk period, in Mesopotamia, and the Proto-Elamite period in Iran. They often bear the mark of one or two cylinder seals, proof that an administrative check or an agreement between two parties had taken place.

A large tablet

This tablet is the largest from the Proto-Elamite period, corresponding to the earliest urban development in the late 4th millennium BC, in the Fars region (southwestern Iran), the present regional capital of which is Shiraz. It bears traces of three different types of administrative tools: writing, accounting and glyptics, a major art form of the period, corresponding to the use of seals. There are inscriptions of both writing and numeral signs on both sides of the tablet.

The emergence of a new writing system in the Fars region

Writing emerged in Iran nearly three centuries after being invented in southern Mesopotamia. This writing system, developed in the Fars region and called Proto-Elamite for this reason, is totally independent from the writing in use at Uruk. As no bilingual text exists that would enable us to establish an equivalence between the two systems, Proto-Elamite writing remains undecipherable. However, the reading direction (right to left) and its horizontality have been detected.

An accounting document sealed with images of animals in human poses

These Proto-Elamite tablets are accounting documents. Three different numerical systems are used on the tablet: a decimal system, a sexagesimal system and a mixed system known as SE. The various operations are listed on the front side of the tablet, recapitulated, with totals, on the back at the top. New figures appear: crescent-shaped notches and dots circled with a constellation of tiny points, some of which represent fractions. A pictographical sign resembling a fringed triangle, known as the "hairy triangle," often appears, but its meaning remains unclear. A single seal was used on the document, a cylinder-seal that was rolled twice across the width of the tablet, covering most of the back of the tablet. The scene shows a bull symmetrically restraining two seated felines, alternating with a lion dominating two rearing bulls, each topped with a "hairy triangle." The animals stand on their hindlegs as if they were bipeds, a technique characteristic of the Proto-Elamite period in which animals were often depicted in a human pose. The choice of bulls and lions was deliberate, for these animals appear to personify cosmic forces, decisive in the balance of power in the world. In the scene, there is no durable winner or loser, but alternating, opposing forces that appear equal.


Amiet Pierre, Élam, Auvers-sur-Oise, Archée, 1966, p. 101, n 56.
Amiet Pierre, La Glyptique mésopotamienne archaïque, Paris, Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1980, pp. 107-110 et pl. 38, n 585.
Stolper Matthew W., The Royal City of Susa. Ancient Near Eastern Treasures in the Louvre, Exposition, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, n 49.

Technical description

  • Grande tablette de comptabilité avec empreinte représentant les figures mythologiques du lion et du taureau, en attitude humaine et se domptant alternativement

    Tell de l'Acropole

  • Argile

    H. 21 cm; L. 26 cm; H. of seal mark: 4.2 cm

  • Fouilles J. de Morgan, 1901 , 1901

    Sb 2801

  • Near Eastern Antiquities

    Richelieu wing
    Ground floor
    Iran, Susiana, and the Iranian plateau
    Room 232
    Vitrine 5 : Instruments de gestion et de comptabilité aux époques de Suse I, Suse II et Suse III (4200 - 2800 avant J.-C.)

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