Cuneiform Studies MPhil

Akkadian diplomatic letter found in Tell Amarna. Wikimedia Commons

This MPhil in Cuneiform Studies is designed to function as a self-contained course in its own right that will provide a satisfying and advanced study of the languages, culture and history of ancient Mesopotamia. It is also intended to take you to the point where you can consider embarking on doctoral research in cuneiform studies (in Akkadian and/or Sumerian).

The range of options available makes the MPhil Cuneiform Studies suitable both for graduates who have already studied Cuneiform, and for those with no previous experience in the field.

If you have a Cuneiform background, you will be able to build on your previous studies and gain specialised expertise. If you have graduated in another discipline, you will be able to convert to Cuneiform studies through a course that offers a progression from beginning the Akkadian and Sumerian languages to individual research. The course will provide the opportunity to develop a research area of your choice and elements of the course will be tailored to your individual interests.

The study of Akkadian and Sumerian, the two principal ancient languages of Mesopotamia, lies at the heart of the course. The principal focus throughout is on detailed familiarity with the primary sources, studied in the original languages and scripts. The course is designed to equip you with a sound knowledge of Akkadian and Sumerian grammar, vocabulary, and cuneiform script, as well as developing your ability to tackle published, but unedited Cuneiform texts.

Familiarity with the secondary literature and study aids such as dictionaries and sign lists, as well as historiographical and literary-critical approaches, are integral to the course. In addition to this textual focus, the cultures, history, and archaeology of Mesopotamia and neighbouring areas are fundamental course components. You will have the opportunity to develop your skills working with ancient Near Eastern artefacts, including cuneiform tablets, in the Ashmolean Museum.

The Cuneiform world is also studied in a wider context. Options include the Egyptian, Biblical, and Classical worlds, as well as the later Near East. The MPhil thesis will provide you with the opportunity to identify and design a cuneiform-related research project and to develop advanced research skills.

From the beginning of the course, you should expect to be engaged in academic work for a minimum of thirty-five hours a week during full term and you will need to do a considerable amount of work during the vacations. The course is taught through a mixture of classes (mainly language classes), lectures, and seminars, with some tutorials. Tutorials normally consist of a one-to-one discussion with a tutor based on written work produced by the student. The syllabus is flexible and designed to meet the needs and interests both of those new to the field and of those who have studied cuneiform at undergraduate level.

Asian and Middle Eastern studies graduates have found employment in many diverse fields including business, finance law, civil service, journalism, government and industry.

Many graduates have also undertaken further research into subjects linked with Asian and Middle Eastern studies and have pursued successful careers in the academic world, education and in museums.


You will have a qualifying examination at the end of your first year, and a final examination at the end of the second.

In order to progress to the second year of the course, you will also need to demonstrate a reading knowledge of French and German as much of the secondary literature on the subject is written in these languages. You will have the opportunity to undertake the necessary training at the University’s Language Centre in your first year if required.

Further information on the course, and the examination process, can be found in the course handbook here (information is current for the academic year of publication).

The Art, Archaeology and Ancient World Library has excellent library resources for Mesopotamia and the Ancient Near East, including language, literature, history, and archaeology. The areas covered include Akkadian, Sumerian, Hittite, Elamite, Old Persian, Hurrian and Ugaritic. The Griffith Institute is located within the Art, Archaeology and Ancient World Library building and contains the offices of the main teachers of Mesopotamian studies and Egyptology. The Griffith Institute archives hold Egyptological and Assyriological papers. The Topographical Bibliography of Egyptian Sites is also edited there.

The Ashmolean Museum has an extensive and notable collection of Ancient Near Eastern and Egyptological antiquities, including the most important collection of Cuneiform tablets in the UK after the British Museum. You are encouraged to familiarise yourself with the collection and to learn how to read and copy from original clay tablets.

Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative and Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature
Two projects may also be of use or interest to you for the MPhil Cuneiform Studies, namely the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (CDLI) and the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature (ETCSL).

  • The CDLI represents the efforts of an international group of Assyriologists, museum curators and historians of science to make available through the internet the form and content of Cuneiform tablets dating from the beginning of writing, ca. 3350 BC, until the end of the pre-Christian era.
  • The ETCSL comprises a selection of nearly 400 literary compositions recorded on sources which come from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and date to the late third and early second millennia BCE. The corpus contains Sumerian texts in transliteration, English prose translations and bibliographical information for each composition. The transliterations and the translations can be searched, browsed and read online using the tools of the website.

Work on both projects is ongoing at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies in Oxford and students may be able to gain experience in methods and approaches to Digital Humanities, by contributing data to one of these projects.

In addition, there are a number of other specialist library collections in Oxford that focus on Asian and Middle Eastern studies, such as:

The Khalili Research Centre is the University of Oxford's centre for research and teaching in the art and material culture of the Islamic societies of the Middle East and of non-Muslim members and neighbours

You will also have access to the University's centrally provided electronic resources, the department's IT Officer and other bibliographic, archive or material sources as appropriate to the research topic. There is a computing room for the use of graduate students in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, as well as a common room where tea and coffee are available and staff and students can meet.

Sources of funding

Applications received for this course by the January deadline will also be considered for funding if applications meet the eligibility criteria. Please use the University's fees, funding and scholarship search tool to find what funding you may be eligible for.

The Faculty has a number of scholarships and funding opportunities across a wide range of subjects. Please see here for a list of these opportunities.