## Abstract

Since the 1950s, “Babylonian mathematics” has often served to open expositions

of the general history of mathematics. Since it is written in a language and a

script which only specialists understand, it has always been dealt with differently

by the “insiders”, the Assyriologists who approached the texts where it manifests

itself as philologists and historians of Mesopotamian culture, and by “outsiders”,

historians of mathematics who had to rely on second-hand understanding of the

material (actually, of as much of this material as they wanted to take into

account), but who saw it as a constituent of the history of mathematics. The

article deals with how these different approaches have looked in various periods:

pre-decipherment speculations; the early period of deciphering, 1847–1929; the

“golden decade”, 1929–1938, where workers with double competence (primarily

Neugebauer and Thureau-Dangin) attacked the corpus and demonstrated the

Babylonians to have possessed unexpectedly sophisticated mathematical

knowledge; and the ensuing four decades, where some mopping-up without

change of perspective was all that was done by a handful of Assyriologists and

Assyriologically competent historians of mathematics, while most Assyriologists

lost interest completely, and historians of mathematics believed to possess the

definitive truth about the topic in Neugebauer’s popularizations.

of the general history of mathematics. Since it is written in a language and a

script which only specialists understand, it has always been dealt with differently

by the “insiders”, the Assyriologists who approached the texts where it manifests

itself as philologists and historians of Mesopotamian culture, and by “outsiders”,

historians of mathematics who had to rely on second-hand understanding of the

material (actually, of as much of this material as they wanted to take into

account), but who saw it as a constituent of the history of mathematics. The

article deals with how these different approaches have looked in various periods:

pre-decipherment speculations; the early period of deciphering, 1847–1929; the

“golden decade”, 1929–1938, where workers with double competence (primarily

Neugebauer and Thureau-Dangin) attacked the corpus and demonstrated the

Babylonians to have possessed unexpectedly sophisticated mathematical

knowledge; and the ensuing four decades, where some mopping-up without

change of perspective was all that was done by a handful of Assyriologists and

Assyriologically competent historians of mathematics, while most Assyriologists

lost interest completely, and historians of mathematics believed to possess the

definitive truth about the topic in Neugebauer’s popularizations.

Original language | English |
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Title of host publication | Historiography of Mathematics in the 19th and 20th Centuries |

Editors | Volker R. Remmert, Martina Schneider, Henrik Kragh Sørensen |

Number of pages | 26 |

Place of Publication | Cham |

Publisher | Birkhäuser Verlag |

Publication date | 2016 |

Pages | 53-78 |

ISBN (Print) | 978-3-319-39647-7 |

ISBN (Electronic) | 978-3-319-39649-1 |

Publication status | Published - 2016 |

Series | Trends in the History of Science |
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ISSN | 2297-2951 |

## Keywords

- Cuneiform script, decipherment
- Hincks, Edward
- Mesopotamian mathematics, historiography
- Neugebauer, Otto
- Oppert, Jules
- Rawlinson, Henry
- Thureau-Dangin, François