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Mathematical Treasure: Clay Tablets from Sumer

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

The oldest known clay tablet containing mathematical computations (Schøyen MS 3047) is today held in the Schøyen Collection. It is a multiplication table from 27th century BCE Sumer (now Iraq) giving area as a product of recorded lengths. Note the token impressions, which you can read more about in another Convergence article, "Mathematical Treasure: Mesopotamian Accounting Tokens." The tablet measures less than 3 inches in height and width and is less than an inch thick.

Below: A circa 1950 BCE clay tablet (Schoyen MS 1844), probably from pre-Babylonian Larsa (now in Iraq), contains a problem on the distribution of an inheritance: If a sum of money is to be divided among seven brothers so that the first gets two units of money and each other brother 1/7 more than his immediate predecessor, what are the shares to be? This tablet has a radius of about 4 1/3 inch and is over an inch thick.

The images above are presented through the courtesy of the Schøyen Foundation.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Clay Tablets from Sumer," Convergence (June 2018)