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The Beginning

Iranian History - The Beginning of the Historical Period

Ancient East

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Most likely it was the introduction of irrigation that provided the impetus for loose tribal groupings to form the more complex city societies with strong central leadership characteristic of the first civilisations.

Culture developed most rapidly in the lowlands around the Persian Gulf. Elam and Sumer, both benefiting from fertile lands and favourable weather conditions, were able to work the land all year round, leading to regular surpluses in production.

These surpluses were exported while many raw materials such as timber, minerals, precious stones and metals were imported and then re-exported after being worked into useful objects.

Flourishing trade necessitated the keeping of records. At first these took the form of shaped clay tokens that represented commodities such as grain and livestock. These were kept in clay containers that bore markings to indicate their contents.

The markings eventually replaced the tokens entirely, laying the foundation for an abstract writing system. At the same time, temples began to keep records of the gifts given to them by the growing wealthy classes. It was within this context that writing was developed at around 3500BC, marking the beginning of the historical period.

Over the course of the next 1,000 years, pictographs began to be replaced by symbols which were combined to form words. The development of this kind of symbolic writing marks out what historians call "high culture". Many of the contemporary civilisations of the Fertile Crescent, including the Egyptians, did not make this switch.

Clay accounting tokens excavated at Susa.

Clay accounting tokens excavated at Susa
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

More than 200 years of excavations have uncovered thousands of earthen tablets at sites in Susa and Fars province, particularly from the ancient city of Anshan. These tablets, dating from around 3500BC until the time of Christ, contain records of historical events, myth, religion, sports and the progress of the different schools of science such as medicine and astronomy.

Earthen tablets and stamps such as these have been found not only in the centre of the Elamite empire, in what is now Susa and Fars province, but also different parts of the Iranian plateau; the Sylak Hills in Kashan, Gilan in Northern Iran, Gudin and Tape in Western Iran, and Tape-e Yahiah, Shahr-e Sukhte ("The Burned City") and Shahdad in Southeast Iran. These discoveries show how far Elamite trade and civilisation had spread from the heart of the kingdom.

The development of writing, which had run in parallel in the civilisations of Sumer and Elam diverged at around 2900BC. At this time, a distinct written tradition appeared in Elam that was quite different from its contemporaries.

Proto-Elamite script and numeric signs.

Proto-Elamite script and numeric signs from the Acropolis at Susa
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

The development of this "proto-Elamite" script, along with changes in architecture and pottery, suggest the emergence of a distinct culture which bore more relation to the tribes of the Iranian plateau than to those of Mesopotamia.

Will Yong and Kazem Vafadari

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