Mathilde Touillon-Ricci

Title: Individuality and Identity in Writing: Personalising Cuneiform Documentation in the New Sumerian and Old Assyrian Periods (21st and 19th Centuries BCE)

University: SOAS-University of London and The British Museum

Supervisors: Dr Mark Weeden and Dr Jon Taylor


Inscribed objects, beyond their documentary content, materialise the writing process and the context in which it was performed. This research aims to further our understanding of the material aspects of cuneiform writing beyond its documentary and historical nature and to develop our insight into literacy and writing practices.

Writing, as a conception as well as a process, being a combination of rules and standards performed by individuals: can identity and individuality be revealed in writing? Over its long and diverse history, cuneiform adapted and evolved while maintaining characteristically consistent features: what freedom did scribes have to express variations? Cuneiform objects display a variety of sizes, shapes and writing styles, revealing their social, geographical, and chronological contexts of production: how does cuneiform writing also reflect on literacy and writing practices?

Individuality and identity in cuneiform are analysed by investigating two contrasting corpora: the institutionalised cuneiform production of professional New Sumerian scribes at the epicentre of state bureaucracy in Southern Iraq; the practical literacy of Old Assyrian merchants’ documents produced along the trading routes between Mesopotamia and Anatolia.
Considering the artefactual value of inscribed objects, this research applies palaeographic and diplomatic analysis 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 formation, this project provides new evidence about literacy and idiosyncrasy in writing in the New Sumerian and Old Assyrian periods, as well as new methodologies of investigation.

This research is conducted in partnership with the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum and the Department of History at SOAS-University of London, as part of the Collaborative Doctoral Awards scheme supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK.

Keywords: palaeography, diplomatics, materiality, writing practices, New Sumerian,  Old Assyrian