Science: Archaeology and the Prehistory of Mathematics

The Story:

Back in 1894 archaeologists discovered an old clay tablet in what is now known as Iraq, a survival of Babylonia. They classified the tablet as Si. 427. It did not appear to be extraordinary. A more recent study of the tablet, now the property of the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, makes it turns out to be quite fascinating.


The ancient Babylonians were careful students of geometry, and were familiar with what came to be known (more than a thousand years later) as the Pythagorean theorem. One of the mathematicians behind the new analysis of Si. 427, Daniel Mansfield of the University of New South Wales, in Australia, says: “With this new tablet, we can actually see for the first time why they were interested in geometry: to lay down precise land boundaries,” says Mansfield in the statement. “This is from a period where land is starting to become private—people started thinking about land in terms of ‘my land and your land,’ wanting to establish a proper boundary to have positive neighborly relationships.”

Strange New Worlds:

The discussion of land boundaries in Si. 427 now appears to be the oldest known use of applied geometry. Yet it is set out as if such calculations were a matter of routine, so it surely wasn’t the absolute first and more remains to be discovered.

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