“What fascinated me the most was that I tried to answer cultural historical questions by means of manuscripts that hardly contained any historical information. And that it worked eventually, at least partially.”
There must be a lot of talented Assyriologists at the moment, because it has been raining prizes during the last General Meeting! De Gruyter publishers has awarded, together with the IAA, the Assyriologist who has written the best dissertation for their PhD. This year, Tobias Scheucher (34) from Berlin was the one who won this prize.
Receiving his PhD in September 2012, it was obvious from the start that Tobias was a strong candidate. Dressed in traditional Bavarian-costume, he defended his dissertation with verve, answering every review-question with expertise. Eva von Dassow, the chair of the committee, spoke enthusiastically about Tobias’ dissertation during the General Meeting and she left no doubt that this award had been given to the right person.
Scheucher comes from a diverse background. He started out as a German Literature and Philosophy student at the Humboldt University in Berlin. When he found out that this was not what he wanted, he decided to switch to Ancient Near Eastern Studies and Comparative Indo-European and Semitic Linguistics at the Freie Universität Berlin. After receiving his Masters degree, Tobias was offered a scholarship to write his dissertation as part of Wilfred van Soldt’s NWO Project ‘The Transfer of Knowledge in a Cuneiform Culture’. While the project was based in the Netherlands, Tobias kept living in Berlin and performed much of his research there.
Scheucher’s dissertation subject was chosen on the basis of the research-project, but he was given freedom with regards to his methods and research questions. “The material basis of the work is formed by three corpora of manuscripts: the lexical lists from Hattusha, Ugarit, and Emar”, Scheucher explains. “The three basic research questions concern (1) the modes of transmission by which scribes transferred the textual materials from Mesopotamia to those Western ‘peripheral’ sites, (2) the modes of transmission by which the local scribes handed down the textual materials to the subsequent scribes’ generations, and (3) the kind of practical use the scribes made of the lists, especially regarding the context of scribal education.”
A good dissertation requires resilience, as research is a creative act, and creative acts never run without emotional risks and crises.
As with many dissertations before his, Tobias’ manuscript did not come into being overnight. “During the work, believe me, I got stuck quite a lot of times, but eventually I think that’s normal. I had to realize repeatedly that my theoretical presumptions, research questions, or methods were inadequate and required revision”, Scheucher looks back. “Also, the manuscripts themselves not rarely caused severe problems of interpretation. Unfortunately, I am not very patient at reading manuscripts.” But, Tobias kept his eye on the prize, so to say and worked towards his vision to develop a coherent historical picture. “It was fascinating to finally discover that the outcome was so different from what I had expected at the beginning.”
Scheucher explains that it was probably his research approach which led him to these surprising conclusions. “All three of my research-questions are strongly interrelated and could not be approached separately. Linking the textual material to the theoretical framework, the study tries to take into account all available dimensions of the manuscripts. Archaeological; archival; epigraphical; palaeographical; orthographical; textual-traditional (inter-textual), and historical aspects are all present.”
When asked if he has any advice for future dissertation writers, Tobias’ answer is not limited to just one aspect. Time, balance between self-confidence and self-criticism, courage and vision have all been important factors for him. “A good dissertation requires resilience, as research is a creative act, and creative acts never run without emotional risks and crises”, he adds”. Also of great importance was a supporting environment, in which fresh ideas are encouraged and resonance is provided. Scheucher finds he found this especially in the support of his supervisor, Wilfred van Soldt, whom he calls ‘his doktorvater‘.
At least for the time being, however, Scheucher will not be needing his own advice. He has taken some time off from conducting research, and he is now working for a private education operator. He is involved in the training of project management tools. When he will return and to what field, Tobias does not yet know, for his interests are diverse. “To be honest, I am not quite sure about what could be a realistic field of future research for me”, he says. “Regarding actual philology, I was always strongly interested in palaeography and its developments. Yet, to me the really fascinating research questions are not actually philological ones, but rather stem from culture history. I like interdisciplinary approaches and I love the ‘big questions’, those questions that show a strong relation to (post-)modern phenomena.”
So, it will have to be a surprise to find out what Tobias Scheucher will have in store for us in the future. At least we can expect to find his dissertation published within the near future. For the rest, all we can do is wish him luck with his next projects and hope they will be as interesting as his dissertation!