Written Mathematical Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia: Knowledge, ignorance, and reasonable guesses

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperResearch

Abstract

Writing, as well as various mathematical techniques, were created in proto-literate
Uruk in order to serve accounting, and Mesopotamian mathematics as we know
it was always expressed in writing. In so far, mathematics generically regarded was
always part of the generic written tradition.
However, once we move away from the generic perspective, things become
much less easy. If we look at basic numeracy from Uruk IV until Ur III, it is
possible to point to continuity and thus to a “tradition”, and also if we look at
place-value practical computation from Ur III onward – but already the relation
of the latter tradition to type of writing after the Old Babylonian period is not
well elucidated by the sources.
Much worse, however, is the situation if we consider the sophisticated
mathematics created during the Old Babylonian period. Its connection to the
school institution and the new literate style of the period is indubitable; but we
find no continuation similar to that descending from Old Babylonian beginnings
in fields like medicine and extispicy. Still worse, if we look closer at the Old
Babylonian material, we seem to be confronted with a small swarm of attempts
to create traditions, but all rather short-lived. The few mathematical texts from
the Late Babylonian (including the Seleucid) period also seem to illustrate
attempts to establish norms rather than to be witnesses of a survival lasting
sufficiently long to allow us to speak of “traditions”.
Original languageDanish
Publication date2011
Number of pages27
Publication statusPublished - 2011
EventTraditions of Written Knowledge in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia - Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Duration: 3 Dec 20114 Dec 2011

Conference

ConferenceTraditions of Written Knowledge in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia
CountryGermany
CityFrankfurt am Main
Period03/12/201104/12/2011

Cite this

Høyrup, J. (2011). Written Mathematical Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia: Knowledge, ignorance, and reasonable guesses. Paper presented at Traditions of Written Knowledge in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.