Science

Ancient clay tablet bears the oldest known example of applied geometry

Ancient clay tablet bears the ...
The ancient clay tablet bearing what is believed to be the oldest known example of applied geometry
The ancient clay tablet bearing what is believed to be the oldest known example of applied geometry
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Dr Mansfield with the Si.427 tablet at the Archaelogical Museum in Istanbul
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Dr Mansfield with the Si.427 tablet at the Archaelogical Museum in Istanbul
The ancient clay tablet bearing what is believed to be the oldest known example of applied geometry
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The ancient clay tablet bearing what is believed to be the oldest known example of applied geometry
The applied geometry seen on the clay tablet Si.427 was used to divide up land
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The applied geometry seen on the clay tablet Si.427 was used to divide up land
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Researchers in Australia have made a discovery that may shake up the history of mathematics, revealing evidence of applied geometry being used for the purposes of land surveying some 3,700 years ago. Found on a Babylonian clay tablet discovered in the late 19th century, the detailed etchings are believed to represent the oldest known example of applied geometry, and feature mathematical techniques linked to the Greek philosopher Pythagoras that were well ahead of their time.

The discovery centers on a clay tablet known as Si.427, which has been on display in an Istanbul museum since being discovered in what is now central Iraq in 1894. Dr Daniel Mansfield from the University of New South Wales was moved to study the specimen after previous work on another artifact from the same period, between 1900 and 1600 B.C.E,. appeared to show early evidence of the use of trigonometry.

“It is generally accepted that trigonometry – the branch of maths that is concerned with the study of triangles – was developed by the ancient Greeks studying the night sky in the second century B.C.E.,” says Dr Mansfield. “But the Babylonians developed their own ‘proto-trigonometry’ to solve problems measuring the ground, not the sky.”

Mansfield and his fellow researchers suspected the artifact, called Plimptom 322, had some sort of practical use, such as the construction of palaces or the surveying of fields. When sifting through literature on the topic, Mansfield then learned of Si.427 and its peculiar etchings and tracked down the location of the tablet, leading him to the Archaeological Museum in Istanbul.

Dr Mansfield with the Si.427 tablet at the Archaelogical Museum in Istanbul
Dr Mansfield with the Si.427 tablet at the Archaelogical Museum in Istanbul

"Even after locating the object it still took months to fully understand just how significant it is, and so it's really satisfying to finally be able to share that story," he says.

Created by an Old Babylonian land surveyor who wrote on it with a stylus, the clay tablet Si.427 features a diagram of a field being split up for sale. And it is the accuracy of the boundaries that really piqued the interest of Mansfield and his team, who say the level of precision was achieved with the use of what are known as Pythagorean triples, a mathematical technique used to create the perfect right angle.

“It’s the only known example of a cadastral document from the Old Babylonian period, which is a plan used by surveyors to define land boundaries," says Mansfield. "In this case, it tells us legal and geometric details about a field that’s split after some of it was sold off.”

The applied geometry seen on the clay tablet Si.427 was used to divide up land
The applied geometry seen on the clay tablet Si.427 was used to divide up land

According to the researchers, the tablet tells a broader tale about why the Old Babylonians become interested in geometry, coinciding with a time when private land ownership was becoming more common and proper and fair boundaries needed to be established. There are still some mysteries to unravel around Si.427, such as the meaning of a set of numbers "25,29" on the back, but there is no doubting its significance.

“The discovery and analysis of the tablet have important implications for the history of mathematics,” Dr Mansfield says. “For instance, this is over a thousand years before Pythagoras was born.”

The research was published in the journal Foundations of Science, while you can hear from Mansfield in the video below.

Australian mathematician reveals world’s oldest example of applied geometry

Source: University of New South Wales

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5 comments
5 comments
aki009
Stuff keeps getting older. Keep your eyes on events in underwater archeology, as the next big reveal is bound to be from population centers from the ice age that were not supposed to be as advanced as they really were. (During the ice age the sea levels were tens of meters lower than they are today.) The coastline of India and Sri Lanka seem to be hot spots for that.
Signguy
Never ceases to amaze me how "we" continue to believe that ancient man were Neanderthals, when we have the Pyramids and all kinds of discoveries of civilizations that still blow away our understanding of ancient man.
HoppyHopkins
Doing Geometry and trigonometry is easy, it is reading cuneiform that is hard. But te real joy is the study of "ooparts" artifacts that do not fit the accepted chronological order of historical development. I personally believe that there was a high technological civilization before and during the last Ice Age. The evidence mostly having been ground out of existence by the Ice sheets or submerged by the rising sea levels. Some of the conclusions in the books calling ooparts "evidence of Aliens", but they did a good job of finding those things thet were 'out of place" Aliens could be a possibility, but physically "modern" humans have been around for more than 100,000 years. Human intelligence has notjust suddenly increased in the last 10,000 years and look how far we have developed in that time. So I find it unlikely that humans wre unable to do as well or better before the last Ice Age and it would explain a lot of things
wolf0579
There is increasing evidence of periodic catastrophes that nearly wipe out the human race, but leave just enough survivors to rekindle the race. (Think periodic mini-nova events from our local star as well as supervolcano eruptions.)

This would neatly explain ALL out of time artefacts, as well as all of these discoveries where ancient peoples seem to have knowledge far too advanced for their time.
Don Duncan
How many times has humanity progressed in science/math but not in politics and self-destructed? That's why I concentrated on politics, the art of living together without killing one another. We are failing again.