Whenever I imagined an ancient clay tablet, I usually pictured a slab, something Charlton Heston would lug around in The Ten Commandments. That’s not always the case, as I just found out. Researchers working at London’s British museum were studying clay tablets from Babylon and many of these are just a few centimeters wide. There are thousands of these in existence and many of them have not been deciphered. The patterns of the hash marks in the clay certainly suggest writing, but to my untrained eye it looks like chaos.
This context makes a recent discovery by Humboldt University astrophysicist Mathieu Ossendrijver all the more impressive. Using just five of these tablets (I’d call them shards in any other context), Ossendrijver learned that astronomers living in ancient Babylon discovered astronomical geometry about 1,400 years before Europe. He argues that stargazers back in the day were trying to predict the movements of Jupider, which they called the White Star. Dating from a period between 350 to 50 BCE these tablets use a base 60 numbering system. With this in mind, Ossendrijver spotted a familiar mathematical equation. By comparing it to other tablets he was able to deduce that the mysterious shards were about Jupiter.
For a number of years he has puzzled over four particular Babylonian tablets housed in the British Museum in London.
“I couldn’t understand what they were about. I couldn’t understand anything about them, neither did anyone else. I could only see that they dealt with geometrical stuff,” he said this week in a phone interview from Germany.
Then one day in late 2014, a retired Assyriologist gave him some black-and-white photographs of tablets stored at the museum. Ossendrijver took notice of one of them, just two inches across and two inches high. This rounded object, which he scrutinized in person in September 2015, proved to be a kind of Rosetta Stone.
Officially named BM 40054 by the museum, and dubbed Text A by Ossendrijver, the little tablet had markings that served as a kind of abbreviation of a longer calculation that looked familiar to him. By comparing Text A to the four previously mysterious tablets, he was able to decode what was going on: This was all about Jupiter. The five tablets computed the predictable motion of Jupiter relative to the other planets and the distant stars.
Another example that math is a universal language, the equations on the tablets have much in common with geometry that wouldn’t show up in Europe until the 14th century, when it was developed there by scholars at Oxford’s Merton College. Ossendrijver added that the Babylonian work is “surprisingly abstract.”
“It’s geometry, which is itself old, but it’s applied in a completely new way, not to fields, or something that lives in real space, but to something that exists in completely abstract space,” Ossendrijver said. “Anybody who studies physics would be reminded of integral calculus.”
I like that this story challenges my biases about the past. People from long ago were capable of more than many of us give them credit for. That’s a humbling (but ultimately encouraging) thought, preserved forever on a lump of clay.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
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