Story problems of the ancient world

Babylonian story problems on clay tablets are featured in a New York University exhibit, “Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics,” reports the New York Times.

If the cost of digging a trench is 9 gin, and the trench has a length of 5 ninda and is one-half ninda deep, and if a worker’s daily load of earth costs 10 gin to move, and his daily wages are 6 se of silver, then how wide is the canal?

Or, a better question: if you were a tutor of Babylonian scribes some 4,000 years ago, holding a clay tablet on which this problem was incised with cuneiform indentations — the very tablet that can now be seen with 12 others from that Middle Eastern civilization at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World — what could you take for granted, and what would you need to explain to your students? In what way did you think about measures of time and space? How did you calculate? Did you believe numbers had an abstract existence, each with its own properties?

The Babylonians used a base 60 system, which is why there are 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour.

The width of that canal is one-and-a-half ninda.

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Comments

  1. Roger Sweeny says:

    The Babylonians also had a 360 day year, which is where we got 360 degrees in a circle. We keep it because 360 is such a wonderful number, divisible by 2,3,4,5,6,8,9,10,12,15,18,20,24,30,36,40,45,60,7290,120, and 180.