An Exhibition That Gets to the (Square) Root of Sumerian Math

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Papyrus, parchment, paper ... videotape, DVDs, Blu-ray discs — long after all these materials have crumbled to dust, the first recording medium of all, the cuneiform clay tablet of ancient Mesopotamia, may still endure.

Thirteen of the tablets are on display until Dec. 17 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, part of New York University. Many are the exercises of students learning to be scribes. Their plight was not to be envied. They were mastering mathematics based on texts in Sumerian, a language that even at the time was long since dead. The students spoke Akkadian, a Semitic language unrelated to Sumerian. But both languages were written in cuneiform, meaning wedge-shaped, after the shape of the marks made by punching a reed into clay.

Sumerian math was a sexagesimal system, meaning it was based on the number 60. The system “is striking for its originality and simplicity,” the mathematician Duncan J. Melville of St. Lawrence University, in Canton, N.Y., said at a symposium observing the opening of the exhibition....

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