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Mathematical Treasure: The Rhind and Moscow Mathematical Papyri

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University)

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus is sometimes called the “Ahmes Papyrus” in honor of the scribe who compiled it. The papyrus is from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom and dates to around 1650 BCE. It was purchased by Henry Rhind in Egypt in 1858 and placed in the British Museum in 1864 by the estate of Henry Rhind, thus it bears his name. This papyrus was probably a mathematics textbook, used by scribes to learn to solve particular mathematical problems by writing down appropriate examples. Eighty-four problems are included in the text, including: tables of divisions, multiplication, and handling of fractions; and geometrical examinations of volumes and areas.

Portion of Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.

Portion of Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.

Detail from Rhind Mathematical Papyrus.

During a research visit to the British Museum in 1991, I was able to examine the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus. The scroll is 33 cm (13 in) wide and over 5 m (16 ft) long.

Frank Swetz examines the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus in 1991.

The Moscow Mathematical Papyrus is another ancient Egyptian papyrus containing mathematics. It is sometimes called the Golenishchev Mathematical Papyrus, after its first owner outside of Egypt, Egyptologist Vladimir Golenishchev. The papyrus was purchased in Thebes in 1892 or 1893, and it is now in the collections of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. It was probably prepared about 1850 BCE. Today, it ranges between 3.8 and 7.6 cm (1.5 and 3 in) wide and is 5.5 m (18 ft) long. It contains 25 mathematical problems together with their solutions.

Problem 14 on the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus.

The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus has two catalog numbers at the British Museum: EA10057 and EA 10058. Carles Dorce photographed problem 14 of the Moscow Mathematical Papyrus in 2012 and listed its 25 problems.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Frank J. Swetz (The Pennsylvania State University), "Mathematical Treasure: The Rhind and Moscow Mathematical Papyri," Convergence (October 2021)