Reconstructing Ancient Egyptian Mathematics: Contrasting the Aims and Approaches of Mathematicians, Egyptologists, and Others

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Chris Hollings (University of Oxford)

Until the late nineteenth century, little was known about the mathematics of ancient Egypt. In the 1870s, however, the reconstruction of ancient Egyptian languages and scripts, coupled with the discovery of a significant mathematical papyrus, led to the first detailed understanding of the mathematics that had been employed by ancient Egyptian scribes. The first readers of this mathematics were Egyptologists, but the subject matter was soon digested and repackaged for readers who had no knowledge of the ancient languages. The reaction of some mathematical readers to this material was one of disappointment – the mathematics that was revealed compared unfavourably with that of ancient Greece, which had long been regarded as the birthplace of ‘proper’ mathematics. Other readers extrapolated from the mathematics of ancient Egyptian sources, systematising it in ways that had more to do with contemporary mathematical tastes than with what was actually written in the papyri. In this seminar, I will contrast these approaches to ancient Egyptian mathematics with the usually much more conservative interpretations of Egyptologists, and I will consider the goals that different scholars had in view when studying these materials.

The seminar in the History of Science, Medicine, and Technology is convened by Alex Aylward (University of Oxford), Hohee Cho (Wolfson College), Mark Harrison (Green Templeton College), Catherine Jackson (Harris Manchester College), and Sloan Mahone (University of Oxford)