Egyptian mathematics
Egyptian mathematics

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Egyptian mathematics

1 Egyptian mathematics

1.1 Mathematics in Egyptian history

Only a small number of the surviving Egyptian papyri are concerned with mathematical calculations – perhaps a dozen or so in all, of which the earliest dates from about 1850 BC and the most recent from AD 750. The two major ones are the Rhind Papyrus (named after the man who bought it on his holidays in Luxor in 1858), which you can see in the British Museum, and the Golenischev (or Moscow) Papyrus, which is in Moscow. They are dated at around 1650 BC and 1850 BC respectively. So here are authentic primary sources – that is, examples of the foundational artefacts upon which our knowledge of the history of mathematics is constructed.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Rhind Papyrus, Problems 39 and 40

If you look at Figure 1, you will see at once that there is a problem; the text is not meaningful until it has been translated into something comprehensible to us. It will be instructive to spend a few minutes discovering what to do about this. It is not generally practicable for any of us to learn afresh each new language or script of cultures whose mathematics we might be interested in. We are reliant, in this case, on the knowledge of Egyptologists for the material on which we can start to build our own understanding. Even once a translation is provided there is still a process of interpretation to be gone through.


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