MPhil in Cuneiform Studies | University of Oxford
Cuneiform
Cuneiform in the Ashmolean Museum
(Image Credit: Andy Bold / Flickr)

MPhil in Cuneiform Studies

About the course

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.

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

Graduate destinations

Oriental 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 Oriental studies and have pursued successful careers in the academic world, education and in museums.

Related courses

Changes to the course

The University will seek to deliver this course in accordance with the description set out in this course page. However, there may be situations in which it is desirable or necessary for the University to make changes in course provision, either before or after registration. For further information, please see our page on changes to courses.

Entry requirements for entry in 2017-18

Within equal opportunities principles and legislation, applications will be assessed in the light of an applicant’s ability to meet the following entry requirements:

1. Academic ability

Proven and potential academic excellence

Applicants are normally expected to be predicted or have achieved a first-class or strong upper second-class undergraduate degree with honours (or equivalent international qualifications), as a minimum, in any subject.

For applicants with a degree from the USA, the minimum GPA sought is 3.5 out of 4.0.

If you hold non-UK qualifications and wish to check how your qualifications match these requirements, you can contact the National Recognition Information Centre for the United Kingdom (UK NARIC).

You will need to demonstrate a working knowledge of French and German by the end of the first year of the course.

No Graduate Record Examination (GRE) or GMAT scores are sought.

Other appropriate indicators will include:

Supporting documents

You will be required to supply supporting documents with your application, including references and an official transcript. See 'How to apply' for instructions on the documents you will need and how these will be assessed.

Performance at interview(s)

Interviews are normally held as part of the admissions process.  

All candidates who meet the criteria are usually interviewed and the timing will be agreed on an individual basis. Candidates are invited to come to Oxford but, if this proves impossible, they are interviewed by phone or Skype. The interview takes up to 45 minutes and may include a short passage of ancient Sumerian or Akkadian text in English translation for discussion. If a passage is used, it is given to candidates ten minutes before the interview begins (no knowledge of the original language is required). A minimum of two interviewers will be present.

Publications

Publications are not expected.

2. English language requirement

Applicants whose first language is not English are usually required to provide evidence of proficiency in English at the higher level required by the University.

3. Availability of supervision, teaching, facilities and places

The following factors will govern whether candidates can be offered places:

  • The ability of the Oriental Institute to provide the appropriate supervision, research opportunities, teaching and facilities for your chosen area of work. 
  • Minimum and maximum limits to the numbers of students who may be admitted to Oxford's research and taught programmes.

The provision of supervision, where required, is subject to the following points:

  • The allocation of graduate supervision is the responsibility of the Oriental Institute and it is not always possible to accommodate the preferences of incoming graduate students to work with a particular member of staff. 
  • Under exceptional circumstances a supervisor may be found outside the Oriental Institute.

Where possible your academic supervisor will not change for the duration of your course. However, it may be necessary to assign a new academic supervisor during the course of study or before registration for reasons which might include sabbatical leave, maternity leave or change in employment.

4. Disability, health conditions and specific learning difficulties

Students are selected for admission without regard to gender, marital or civil partnership status, disability, race, nationality, ethnic origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation, age or social background.

Decisions on admission are based solely on the individual academic merits of each candidate and the application of the entry requirements appropriate to the course.

Further information on how these matters are supported during the admissions process is available in our guidance for applicants with disabilities.

5. Assessors

All recommendations to admit a student involve the judgment of at least two members of academic staff with relevant experience and expertise, and additionally must be approved by the Director of Graduate Studies or Admissions Committee (or equivalent departmental persons or bodies).

Admissions panels or committees will always include at least one member of academic staff who has undertaken appropriate training.

6. Other information

Whether you have yet secured funding is not taken into consideration in the decision to make an initial offer of a place, but please note that the initial offer of a place will not be confirmed until you have completed a Financial Declaration.

It would be expected that applicants would be familiar with the recent published work of academics in the Faculty of Oriental Studies working in this field.

Resources

The Sackler 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 Sackler 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.

As well as the Sackler Library and Griffith Institute, you are able to use the Oriental Institute Library, housed in the Oriental Institute. You will have access to the University's centrally provided electronic resources and the faculty IT Officer. There is a computing room for the use of graduate students in the Oriental Institute, as well as a common room where tea and coffee are available and staff and students can meet.

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.

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 Oriental 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.

Funding

There are over 1,000 full graduate scholarships available across the University, and these cover your course and college fees and provide a grant for living costs. If you apply by the relevant January deadline and fulfil the eligibility criteria you will be automatically considered. Over two thirds of Oxford scholarships require nothing more than the standard course application. Use the Fees, funding and scholarship search to find out which scholarships you are eligible for and if they require an additional application, full details of which are provided.

The Ertegun Scholarship Programme and the Humanities Research Council (AHRC) each provide a number of awards every year, to support graduate students across a range of disciplines. To be considered for these studentships you must apply by the relevant January admissions deadline.

Costs

Annual fees for entry in 2017-18

Fee status

Tuition fee

College fee

Total annual fees

Home/EU
(including Islands)
£8,715£3,021£11,736
Overseas£19,335£3,021£22,356

The fees shown above are the annual tuition and college fees for this course for entry in the stated academic year; for courses lasting longer than one year, please be aware that fees will usually increase annually. For details, please see our guidance on likely increases to fees and charges.

Tuition and college fees are payable each year for the duration of your fee liability (your fee liability is the length of time for which you are required to pay tuition and college fees).

For more information about tuition fees, college fees and fee liability, please see the Fees section of this website. EU applicants should refer to our dedicated webpage for details on the impact of the result of the UK referendum on its membership of the European Union.

Additional information

There are no compulsory elements of this course that entail additional costs beyond fees and living costs.  However, as part of your course requirements, you may need to choose a dissertation, a project or a thesis topic. Please note that, depending on your choice of topic and the research required to complete it, you may incur additional expenses, such as travel expenses, research expenses, and field trips. You will need to meet these additional costs, although you may be able to apply for small grants from your department and/or college to help you cover some of these expenses.

Living costs

In addition to your tuition and college fees, you will need to ensure that you have adequate funds to support your living costs for the duration of your course.

For the 2017-18 academic year, the range of likely living costs is between £1,002 and £1,471 for each month spent in Oxford. Full information, including a breakdown of likely living costs in Oxford for items such as food, accommodation and study costs, is available on our Living costs page.

How to apply

You are not expected to make contact with an academic member of staff before you apply.

The set of documents you should send with your application to this course comprises the following:

Official transcript(s)

Your transcripts should give detailed information of the individual grades received in your university-level qualifications to date. You should only upload official documents issued by your institution and any transcript not in English should be accompanied by a certified translation.

More information about the transcript requirement is available in the Application Guide.

CV/résumé

A CV/résumé is compulsory for all applications. Most applicants choose to submit a document of one to two pages highlighting their academic achievements and any relevant professional experience.

Statement of purpose/personal statement:
Up to three pages

Your statement should be written in English and explain your motivation for applying for the course at Oxford, your relevant experience and education, and the specific areas that interest you and/or you intend to specialise in.  The overall page count should include any bibliography. 

This will be assessed for:

  • your reasons for applying, especially to Oxford
  • evidence of motivation for and understanding of the proposed area of study
  • commitment to the subject
  • preliminary knowledge of research techniques
  • capacity for sustained and intense work at a high intellectual level
  • reasoning ability
  • ability to absorb new ideas at a rapid pace.

Written work:
Two essays of 2,000 words each

Academic essays or other writing samples from your most recent qualification are required. Extracts of the requisite length from longer work are also permissible.

The word count does not need to include any bibliography or brief footnotes.

This will be assessed for:

  • comprehensive understanding of the subject area
  • understanding of problems in the area
  • ability to construct and defend an argument
  • powers of analysis
  • powers of expression
  • clarity and accuracy of thought and writing
  • conceptual sophistication
  • critical skill
  • control of relevant primary and secondary sources
  • presentation of material in the appropriate scholarly form.

It is helpful if written work relates closely to the proposed area of study, though it is not compulsory, as there are many things that the assessors look for in the written work which are not specific to the subject area, such as ability to construct and defend an argument and presentation of material in the appropriate scholarly form.

References/letters of recommendation:
Three overall, generally academic

Whilst you must register three referees, the department may start the assessment of your application if two of the three references are submitted by the course deadline and your application is otherwise complete. Please note that you may still be required to ensure your third referee supplies a reference for consideration.

Whilst it is appreciated that obtaining academic references will be difficult for some candidates, academic references are requested because it is necessary to establish whether a candidate is intellectually prepared for a course. It is unlikely that this is something that can be established from a professional or personal reference, so you should only submit such references if there is absolutely no alternative.

Your references will support intellectual ability, academic achievement, motivation, and fitness for chosen course of study.