Mathilde Touillon-Ricci

Individuality and identity in cuneiform: personalising economic documentation from the 21st and 20th centuries BCE

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council

Studying inscribed clay tablets from ancient Mesopotamia, the research explores the material aspects of writing and literacy, and their mechanisms of transmission.

Start Date: October 2016
End Date: October 2019
Themes: What objects can reveal about the social, cultural, religious, creative and political history of their makers, users, owners, depositors and collectors.
Research discipline: Archaeology, Museum studies
Location: Middle East
Staff member: Dr Jon Taylor
Department: Middle East
University and department: SOAS - University of London, Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East
University supervisor: Dr Mark Weeden

Can identity and individuality be revealed in writing?

Writing, as a conception and as a process, is a balanced combination of rules and standards performed by individuals.

What freedom does writing allow to express variations?

Across its long and varied history, the cuneiform script has adapted and evolved while maintaining characteristically consistent features.

How does writing reflect on literacy and knowledge?

Cuneiform objects display a variety in size, shape, and writing, revealing their social, geographical and chronological context of production.


About my research

Inscribed objects, beyond their documentary content, materialise the writing process and the context in which it was performed.

The British Museum houses the largest collection of inscribed material from ancient Mesopotamia outside the Middle East, spanning three millennia of writing, transcribing a variety of languages and dialects, and extending from Anatolia to Iran.

The research investigates two contrasting corpora of cuneiform tablets produced at the end of the 3rd millennium and at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE.

Individuality and identity in cuneiform are analysed through the study of the institutionalised cuneiform production of professional Neo-Sumerian scribes at the epicentre of state bureaucracy in Southern Iraq, and of the practical literacy of Old Assyrian merchants’ documents produced along the trading routes linking Mesopotamia and Anatolia.


Aims of my research

The research aims to further our understanding of the material aspects of writing beyond the documentary nature and historical value of texts, and to develop our insight of literacy and the transmission of knowledge.

Considering the artefactual value of inscribed objects, the research will apply palaeographic and diplomatic analysis as to provide new sources to support existing archaeological and historical knowledge of ancient Mesopotamia. Reaching new layers of information through the study of features such as manufacturing techniques or character forms and formations, the project will potentially provide new evidence about literacy and idiosyncrasy in writing, as well as new methodologies of investigation.

This project combines Assyriology, in studying the written legacy of ancient Mesopotamia; Archaeology, in studying its material legacy; and Museum Studies, in interpreting and sharing this legacy through museum displays.