Mesopotamian Mathematics

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook chapterResearchpeer-review


The chapter explores “Mesopotamian mathematics,” which arose in the late fourth millennium bce, alongside a logographic script, both of which served in accounting. Writing, accounting, and calculation were in the hands of the manager-priests of the temples, who used the techniques to calculate and control land distribution to high officials, rations in kind to workers, and ingredients necessary for products such as beer. Mathematical texts include problems that seem practical but which would never occur in actual scribal work: their function was to display professional identity by exploiting a professional tool. The place-value system was created to simplify accurate calculations. Central to Old Babylonian mathematics were problems concerned with the properties of the sexagesimal system, as well as “algebraic” problems based on a set of four problems about rectangles with a given area, and some linear constraint. Such geometrical riddles have left traces in the pseudo-Heronian Geometrica collections and in medieval Islamic and Indian practical geometry and are likely to have inspired Euclid’s Elements II.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbook of Science and Medicine in the Classical World
EditorsPaul T. Keyser, John Scarborough
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication date2018
ISBN (Electronic)9780199734146
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Cite this