Tablets reveal Babylonian math skills

Old Babylonian “hand tablet” illustrating Pythagoras’ Theorem and an approximation of the square root of two.
A New York exhibition of ancient tablets has revealed the highly sophisticated mathematical practices and education in central-southern Mesopotamia.

Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics displays thirteen Babylonian tablets which show that people of the region were math experts more than 1,000 years before Greek mathematicians were even born.

Held at the New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW), the event exhibits tablets dating from the Old Babylonian Period (ca. 1900-1700 BCE) along with supplemental documentary material.

“It has long been widely recognized that many of the critical achievements of Western Civilization, including writing and the code of law that is the basis for our present-day legal system, developed in ancient Mesopotamia,” Artdaily quoted ISAW director for exhibitions and public programs Jennifer Chi.

“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,” she added.

The tablets, collected from the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the Yale Babylonian Collection, will be on display until December 17, 2010.

“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,” said exhibition organizer Alexander Jones.

The modern knowledge of Babylonian mathematics is based on the work of scribes, who were young wealthy men formally trained in reading and writing.

The scribes learned and practiced mathematics while working in fields such as accounting, building-project planning, and other professions in which mathematics is essential.

“Since the documents are the actual manuscripts of the scribes… we feel as if we were looking over their shoulders as they work,” said Jones.

“We can even see them getting confused and making mistakes.”

The exhibited tablets are in cuneiform script and cover the full spectrum of mathematical activity from arithmetical tables copied by scribes-in-training to sophisticated work on topics today classified as number theory and algebra.

Many of the solutions used by scribes to solve the mathematical problems depended on principles that were believed to have been discovered by Greeks in the sixth century BCE and later.