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MPhil in Assyriology

The Cambridge MPhil in Assyriology is unique in the UK in our combination of the ancient languages, history, archaeology and culture of Mesopotamia. MPhil Assyriology students will join a lively community of Near Eastern scholars, including students on the MPhil in Mesopotamian Archaeology, PhD students, McDonald Institute post-doctoral scholars, and permanent members of teaching and research staff.

The Assyriology MPhil is designed to be flexible in response to the needs of students with different academic backgrounds and interests. We aim to provide the student with a good knowledge of one or both of the principal languages of ancient Mesopotamia (Akkadian and Sumerian), combined with a detailed study of aspects of Mesopotamian archaeology and culture, from the later prehistoric periods (from 6000 BC) through the earliest literate and urban societies of the Near East to the Assyrian and Babylonian empires.

The Assyriology MPhil may act as a self-contained course providing a good general introduction to Mesopotamia, or it may be a conversion course for those who plan to use Mesopotamian textual sources to undertake doctoral research. It is appropriate both for students with no previous knowledge of Mesopotamian languages or archaeology and for students with some knowledge of Mesopotamia and its languages who wish to build further upon this. Language study is an essential component of the Assyriology MPhil; applicants who wish to study ancient Mesopotamia without the language should choose the MPhil in Archaeology, Mesopotamian archaeology option.

Course content

This is a full-time, 11-month course (October – August), combining three taught modules with an independent research dissertation of 15,000 words.

Available modules vary from year to year.  They usually include:

  • G22: Akkadian language and texts
  • G23: Advanced Akkadian language and texts
  • G21: Sumerian language and texts
  • G24: Archaeology of Mesopotamia: Prehistory to Early States [offered in alternate years with G25]
  • G25: Archaeology of Mesopotamia: Territorial States through Empires [offered in alternate years with G24]
  • G26: Mesopotamian culture: Literature [offered in alternate years with G27]
  • G27: Mesopotamian culture: Religion and scholarship [offered in alternate years with G26]
  • G28: Topics in Mesopotamian history and archaeology (This module is built around directed reading on a theme or topic decided in conjunction with the supervisor and any other students interested.  Small group seminars or discussions are held three or four times per term.)

It is also possible to choose one module from another MPhil programme in the Department of Archaeology, providing the opportunity to compare the specific Mesopotamian case study with, e.g., ancient Egypt, or to explore methodological and theoretical issues in the study of early societies.

Course structure

The course structure comprises:

1. One module chosen from:

  • G22 Akkadian language and texts
  • G23 Advanced Akkadian language and texts
  • G21 Sumerian language and texts

2. A second module chosen from:

  • G21 Sumerian language and texts
  • G26/27 Mesopotamian Culture
  • G24/25 Archaeology of Mesopotamia
  • G28 Topics in Mesopotamian History and Archaeology

3. A third module chosen from the list in (2) above, or a module from any other taught MPhil course offered in the Department of Archaeology, subject to the consent of the instructor and the Assyriology MPhil co-ordinator.

4. Research Skills module

5. An independent research dissertation of not more than 15,000 words.

The modules may be assessed by written exams, essays (usually 3000-4000 words) or a combination of both. Many of the courses also include non-assessed presentations.

Module details

G22 Akkadian language and texts: this module is for students with little or no previous knowledge of Akkadian.  Students learn the essential grammar and vocabulary of the language, both in its classic Old Babylonian form (as used in the lawcode of Hammurapi) and in the later literary language, "Standard Babylonian" (as used in the Epic of Gilgamesh). The grammar is covered in the first six weeks, after which teaching takes the form of text-reading classes.  

G23 Advanced Akkadian language and texts: this module is for students already familiar with Akkadian, and takes the form of text-reading classes. It is possible for students to have some say in the choice of set texts, which in the past have ranged across different genres, including letters, legal documents, divination and magical texts, and texts in Assyrian.  In addition to a language exam, candidates for this module produce a hand-copy (scale drawing) of a specified cuneiform tablet, and a philological note.

G21 Sumerian language and texts: this module is normally only available to students who already have a good knowledge of Akkadian.  The module provides an introduction to the grammar and vocabulary of the language through reading selected texts of the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BC.

For further information, see the list of set texts from previous years.

Mesopotamian culture (G24 and G25): These modules introduce the student to Mesopotamian literature, scholarship and thought. To make the course accessible to those starting the languages, it is built around translated texts and is concerned with their literary history, purpose and social context.

G26 Mesopotamian Literature: concentrates on genres of texts traditionally recognized as "literary", including myths and epics, lamentations and wisdom literature. This includes major Akkadian compositions such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the so-called Epic of Creation, but also a variety of Sumerian compositions.

G27 Mesopotamian Religion and Scholarship: covers Mesopotamian thought in the broadest sense, including astronomy and astrology, divination, medicine and magic.

Mesopotamian archaeology (G24 and 25): These modules provide a diachronic survey of Mesopotamian archaeology, with emphasis on themes and problems.

G24 Archaeology of Mesopotamia I: Prehistory through early states focuses on the late Neolithic through the end of the 3rd millennium BC and addresses issues of urbanism and early states, development of religious institutions and economic bureaucracies, trade and the creation of value, funerary rituals, and the effect of climate change on settlement pattern.

G25 Archaeology of Mesopotamia II: Territorial states through empires follows developments of the 2nd and 1st millennia BC, including growth of empires, elaboration of technology, diplomatic exchange and hybridization in art styles.

G28 Topics in Mesopotamian history and archaeology: this module is designed to give students who are already familiar with Mesopotamian archaeology the opportunity for more in-depth study in current debates. The course is taught through seminars and directed reading, on subjects selected according to the students' knowledge and interests.

The dissertation

Students write a 15,000 word dissertation on a topic in Assyriology. The dissertation is an independent research project; the topic is decided in consultation with teaching staff and should be selected to match your own interests, abilities and previous experience.

Applicants for the Assyriology MPhil will normally have undergraduate experience in archaeology, anthropology, classics, or ancient history, but other options are possible and specific knowledge of the ancient Near East is not a prerequisite.

Further information

The official description in the University's course directory is available here.

See also the graduate study funding page and the pages on Assyriology and Mesopotamia at Cambridge.

We are always happy to hear from prospective applicants.  For further information, contact , co-ordinator for this option.

Postgraduate Study at Cambridge