Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ancient tablets reveal Babylonian math skills

An exhibit of 13 ancient Babylonian tablets in New York has revealed that highly sophisticated mathematical practice flourished in Babylonia nearly 1,000 years prior to the Greek sages Thales and Pythagoras, with whom mathematics is said to have begun.

The exhibition-Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics-opened at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, reports

The tablets in the exhibition, at once beautiful and enlightening, date from the Old Babylonian Period (ca. 1900-1700 BCE).

They have been assembled from three important collections: the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University; the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology; and the Yale Babylonian Collection, Yale University.

Jennifer Chi, of ISAW's exhibitions and public programs, stated, "By demonstrating the richness and sophistication of ancient Mesopotamian mathematics, Before Pythagoras adds an important dimension to the public knowledge of the history of historic cultures and attainments of present-day Iraq."

Alexander Jones of ISAW noted, "The evidence we have for Old Babylonian mathematics is amazing not only in its abundance, but also in its range, from basic arithmetic to really challenging problems and investigations. And since the documents are the actual manuscripts of the scribes, not copies selected and edited by later generations, we feel as if we were looking over their shoulders as they work; we can even see them getting confused and making mistakes."

The tablets in Before Pythagoras, inscribed in cuneiform script, cover the full spectrum of mathematical activity, from arithmetical tables copied by scribes-in-training to sophisticated work on topics that today would be classified as number theory and algebra.

In so doing, they illuminated three major themes: arithmetic exploiting a notation of numbers based entirely on two basic symbols; the scribal schools of Nippur, which was the most prestigious center of scribal education; and advanced mathematical training.

New Kerala. 2010. "Ancient tablets reveal Babylonian math skills". New Kerala. Posted: December 19, 2010. Available online:

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