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Mathematical Treasure: An Egyptian Student's Math Tablet

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

This student exercise tablet is from 5th or 6th century Egypt. It is 32.8 cm x 8.7 cm in size, made of wood and given a white coating on which black ink based writing would stand out. The tablet is inscribed in Greek and bears 96 multiplication and division facts: halves of numbers from 1 to 5000 and doubles of numbers from 1 to 20. Such information would be useful in carrying out the Egyptian multiplication and division algorithms involving, respectively, doubling and halving.

The tablet also bears a maxim found on many educational materials from this time and location:

Literacy is the most important source of knowledge.

For more information about education in Graeco-Roman Egypt, see the University of Michigan Papyrology Department’s “Education in Ancient Egypt.”

This image was digitally reproduced with the cooperation and permission of the Papyrology Collection, Graduate Library, University of Michigan, Inventory Number 29974.