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Mathematical Treasures: Old Babylonian Tablets

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

Above: A Babylonian tablet dated from the period 1990-1700 BCE supplies a listing of reciprocals for a selection of sexagesimal numbers. In Babylonian calculations the operation of division was performed by multiplication by the reciprocal of the divisor. The image may be viewed in the University of Pennsylvania Digital Collection, reference number LJS 301.

The image above is of a Babylonian land survey record from ca. 1750 BCE. Three adjacent fields are shown. The dimensions as well as the area of each field are recorded. All the fields border an irrigation canal depicted at the right of the tablet by double lines. Perhaps the calculations were intended for water use charges (University of Pennsylvania LJS 302).

A Babylonian tablet (dated 1990-1800 BCE) bearing a table of sexagesimal integer square roots. From the polished appearance of this tablet, it most probably served as a reference table (University of Pennsylvania LJS 99).

These images are from the University of Pennsylvania Library Digital Collection. The items pictured are from the library's Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasures: Old Babylonian Tablets," Convergence (January 2016)