Old Babylonian tablet containing problems concerning the digging of trenches. Clay, 19th-17th century BCE, Yale Babylonian Collection YBC 4663.

Photo by Christine Proust, all rights reserved.

Due to popular demand, Before Pythagoras has been extended through January 23th, 2011.

Since the nineteenth century, thousands of cuneiform tablets dating to the Old Babylonian Period (c. 1900-1700 BCE) have come to light at various sites in ancient Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). A significant number record mathematical tables, problems, and calculations. In the 1920s these tablets began to be systematically studied by Otto Neugebauer, who spent two decades transcribing and interpreting tablets housed in European and American museums. His labors, and those of his associates, rivals, and successors, have revealed a rich culture of mathematical practice and education that flourished more than a thousand years before the Greek sages Thales and Pythagoras with whom histories of mathematics used to begin.

This exhibition is the first to explore the world of Old Babylonian mathematics through cuneiform tablets covering the full spectrum of mathematical activity, from arithmetical tables copied out by young scribes-in-training to sophisticated work on topics that would now be classified as number theory and algebra. The pioneering research of Neugebauer and his contemporaries concentrated on the mathematical content of the advanced texts; a selection of archival manuscripts and correspondence offers a glimpse of Neugebauer's research methods and his central role in this “heroic age.”

The cuneiform tablets illustrate three major themes: arithmetic exploiting a notation of numbers based entirely on two basic symbols; the scribal schools of Nippur; and advanced training. Many of the latter problems were much more difficult than any that they would have to deal with in professional scribal careers, and their solutions depended on principles that, before the rediscovery of the Babylonian tablets, were believed to have been discovered by the Greeks of the sixth century BCE and after.

Before Pythagoras: The Culture of Old Babylonian Mathematics is curated by Alexander Jones and Christine Proust and is on view at ISAW from November 12th–December 17th, 2010. It is the first in a series of exhibitions that will highlight research areas being explored by ISAW’s Faculty, Visiting Research Scholars and Graduate Students.

This exhibition was made possible through the support of the Leon Levy Foundation.