Writing and numbers - The beginnings in Mesopotamia

Part of the exhibition
Part of the exhibition

The origin of writing in Mesopotamia can be traced in a unique way. Documents on tablets made of clay that survived in abundance in the dry climate of what is now southern Iraq give important hints on the origin of writing and arithmetic. Characters were impressed in the surface of these flat tablets while the clay was still soft. Shortly after the origin of writing in about 3100 BC, writers used a sharp-edged stylus which left wedge-shaped, so-called cuneiform marks. This style of writing stayed in use in numerous languages for 3000 years. This section of the exhibition gives an overview of the evolution of writing and arithmetic from its very beginnings to the heyday of Babylonian mathematics in about 1800 BC. In Mesopotamia, writing emerged as an instrument of administration. It was triggered by changes in community life that came about as cities appeared. Raw materials and products were now recorded and distributed by a central administration, which had to function efficiently. Even the oldest clay tablets register extensive transactions involving various goods over several years.

Like today's point-of-sale receipts, these tablets only contain the most essential information. This is why the writers' method of arithmetic remained a mystery for a long time. It was not until the age of computers that we obtained reliable findings. Statistical analysis of all numeral combinations in these archaic texts revealed that different number systems were applied depending on whether the calculations related to measures of capacity or quantities. This shows that there was no abstract concept of numbers at that time.

This stage had long been reached by 2000 BC. People used a uniform sexagesimal system, and value equivalents such as silver were used to settle payments for various services and products. Book-keeping was still the main application area for writing, but literature and abstract mathematics evolved alongside this at schools of writing. In about 1800 BC, the Babylonians were already familiar with the theorem for right-angled triangles and similar geometric principles - 1200 years before Pythagoras was born.