Despite what you may have thought in school, all those numbers and angles can really come in handy, something that even ancient Babylonian surveyors knew.
The engravings on the clay tablet shown above reveal that people have been using geometry in everyday life for centuries longer than many realized. The tablet is known as Si.427 and dates back to the Old Babylonian Period between 1900 and 1600 BC. C.
The tablet is basically a survey of the land that traces boundary lines, but the surveyor demonstrated an amazing level of knowledge by using what we call today “Pythagorean triples“to make precise right angles. If you paid attention in trigonometry class, you may remember this as the classic 3-4-5 triangle that creates mathematically perfect right angles.
“The discovery and analysis of the tablet important implications for the history of mathematics“For example, this is more than a thousand years before Pythagoras was born,” University of New South Wales mathematician Daniel Mansfield said in a statement on Wednesday.
So centuries before the ancient Greeks built their most famous monuments and before scholars like Pythagoras abandoned the scientific knowledge that I used to build a gloriously straight and square latrine last summer (my strange pandemic project), it turns out that the ancients Babylonians had already marked some of that know-how.
“It is generally accepted that trigonometry was developed by the ancient Greeks when studying the night sky in the second century BC,” says Mansfield. “But the Babylonians developed their own alternative ‘proto-trigonometry’ to solve problems related to measuring the ground, not the sky.”
Interestingly, Si.427 was not a new find. It was actually on display in a museum in Istanbul. Mansfield learned of its existence by reading the excavation records of an expedition that took place in 1894 in present-day Iraq.
“It was a real challenge to trace the tablet from these records and physically find it,” he said. “The report said that the tablet had gone to the Imperial Museum in Constantinople, a place that obviously no longer exists.”
Once Mansfield tracked down the object, it took months to decipher its meaning, which is laid out in detail in a study. published Wednesday in the journal Foundations of Science.
There is a mystery that remains with the ancient document: the number 25:29 is written in Ancient Babylonian base 60 in the back.
“I can’t understand what these numbers mean,” Mansfield said. “It is an absolute conundrum. I am eager to discuss any clues with historians or mathematicians who may have a hunch about what these numbers are trying to tell us.”