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

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

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

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


From the middle of the 3rd millennium BC until the coming of Cyrus the Great, southwestern Iran was referred to in Mesopotamian sources as the land of Elam. A heterogeneous collection of regions, Elam was home to a variety of groups, alternately the object of Mesopotamian aggression, and aggressors themselves; an ethnic group seemingly swallowed up by the vast Achaemenid Persian empire, yet a force strong enough to attack Babylonia in the last centuries BC. The Elamite language is attested as late as the Medieval era, and the name Elam as late as 1300 in the records of the Nestorian church. This book examines the formation and transformation of Elam's many identities through both archaeological and written evidence, and brings to life one of the most important regions of Western Asia, re-evaluates its significance, and places it in the context of the most recent archaeological and historical scholarship.


In order to discuss the origins and development of Elam we must first establish where the name comes from and what it signified. This chapter examines the etymology of the name and introduces the reader to the changing nature of its application. It also takes up the fundamental chronological issue which must be tackled before launching into an examination of the material and historical evidence covered here. When do we first find Elam mentioned? How late did Elam exist? Finally, where was Elam? Seeming contradictions between epigraphic, literary and archaeological evidence are investigated which bear on the problem of how ancient observers and modern scholars have located Elam in their treatments of the subject. Finally, the chapter closes with some observations on how and why the meanings of broad geographical and ethnic designations often change in the course of time. For us it is important to realize that the area identified as Elam in one period may not have been the same as that referred to by the same name in another period. These are some of the ambiguities which must be understood before the subject of Elam can be intelligently discussed.

What is Elam?

Elam (Fig. 1.1) is an artificial construct, a name coined by Mesopotamian scribes, gazing across the alluvium towards the Iranian plateau, who imposed it from without on the disparate regions of highland southwest Iran and its peoples. In Sumerian sources dating to the middle of the third millennium BC (see Chapter 4) the name Elam was written with the sumerogram NIM meaning simply 'high', often accompanied by the determinative KI denoting 'land, country'. The Akkadian form used was normally KUR elammatum or 'land of Elam' (Quintana 1996a: 50).

The etymology of Elam has been much discussed. Damerow and Englund suggest that Elam 'may be an Akkadianized rendering of both Sumerian and Elamite terms influenced by elûm, [to be high]' (Damerow and Englund 1989: 1, n. 1). It was not until the reign of Siwe-palar-hupak, in the 18th century BC, that a name for the land described by Sumerian and Akkadian scribes as Elam appears in the Elamite language as Hatamti, hal Hatamti or Hatamti- (Vallat 1996f: 89; see also 1993a: 90–3). The late Walther Hinz suggested that this term was composed of hal 'land' + tamt 'gracious lord' (1971b: 644) and it has even been suggested recently that this might be an Elamite contraction of the Akkadian expression ala 'itum matum, meaning 'high land' (Quintana 1996a: 50), but it seems more likely that Akkadian Elamtu derives from Elamite Ha (l)tamti (Vallat 1996f: 89). Be that as it may, the fact remains that the . . .

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