Mesopotamian Mathematics in the BM

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

This is the famous Royal Game of Ur (2600-2300 BC). This wooden game board was in at least six graves in the Royal Cemetery so it’s an early example of a game that was played all over the ancient Near East for about 3.000 years.

The game is a race for two players using dice with seven identical pieces each. All playing squares are decorated, but on later boards only the five ‘rosette’ squares are marked. […] Pieces are ‘at war’ along the central path but turn off to their own side to exit.

Playing pieces were discs of shell or lapis lazuli. The tetrahedrical dice of the game are also exhibited.

Apart of the Royal Game of Ur, the only exhibited objects which are related with Mespotamian mathematics are the Archaic and Cuneiform tablets. For example, look at this tablet containing a five day ration list (Jemdet Nasr, 3000-2900 BC):

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Each line contains rations for one day and the sign for ‘day’ and numbers 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 are easily identificable (at the beginning of the line!).

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

This Gypsum tablet with Archaic numbers (Uruk, 3300 BC) has 3 units (round impressions) and 3 ‘tens’ (elongated impressions).

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

This tablet above contains the daily barley beer ration for the workers (3300-3100 BC). Here there are also identificable all the marks representing units and tens and it’s the same in the next tablet containig food rations (3300-3100 BC):

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Finally, there is another tablet from the Late Uruk Period (3300-3100 BC):

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

However, mathematical tables are not only clay tablets with figures and numbers. For example, the next tablet contains a set of problems relating to the calculation of volume, together with the solutions.

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

You can see the details of the tablet in the next two pictures:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

There is also a tablet recording observations of the planet Venus from c.1700 BC:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Astronomical tablets were so common in Mesopotamia and here we have a representation of the heavens in eight segments which include drawings of the constellations.

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

The next piece of cuneiform tablet contains a star chart which was found in Ashurbanipal’s library:

Photography by Carlos Dorce

Photography by Carlos Dorce

According the British Museum’s web…

Ashurbanipal, whose name (Ashur-bani-apli) means, ‘the god Ashur is the creator of the heir’, came to the Assyrian throne in 668 BC. He continued to live in the Southwest Palace of his grandfather, Sennacherib, in Nineveh, which he decorated with wall reliefs depicting his military activity in Elam. He also had a new residence built at Nineveh, known today as the North Palace. The famous lion hunt reliefs, some of which are now in The British Museum, formed part of the new palace’s decorative scheme.

Throughout his reign, Ashurbanipal had military problems, mainly at the borders of the empire. He also continued his father’s policy of attacking Egypt. Campaigns in 667 and 664 BC led to the defeat of the Egyptian Twenty-fifth Dynasty and the appointment of a pro-Assyrian ruler in the Nile Delta. Assyria also attacked Elam, possibly in 658-57 BC, following the receipt of insulting letters from the Elamite king. In 652 BC Shamash-shum-ukin, Ashurbanipal’s brother, and ruler of Babylonia, revolted against Assyria with the support of the Elamites. The Assyrian army invaded Elam and Babylonia. Babylon was captured in 648 BC and the following year the Elamite city of Susa was destroyed. There is little surviving evidence that can help us to reconstruct the last years of Ashurbanipal’s reign. Ashurbanipal boasted of his ability to read the cuneiform script, and was responsible for the collection and copying of a major library of contemporary literary and religious texts

LocationBritish Museum in London (map)

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