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Cuneiform is a form of writing created with a wedge (cuneus) shaped tool. The first inscriptions discovered dates back to about 3000BC, and the most recent from the 1st Century AD. It originated in AncientMesopotamia and spread throughout the middle east as far as Egypt.

Originally used to write Sumerian, it was later used for many other languages, including Babylonian and Assyrian. It developed more than 600 characters, which could have several phonetic and symbolic meanings.

The RosettaStone for Cuneiform was the BehistunInscription - found in Iran, it contained the same text (kingly boastings) in three languages Old Persian, Assyrian, and Elamite. The decoding of the Persian in 1846 lead on to the cracking of the Assyrian and Elamite versions.

Many cuneiform representations of accounts and stock have been found, as have mathematical texts. The Babylonians used a sexigesimal system (base 60), presumably because 60 has a large number of divisors (1,2,3,4,5,6,10,12,15,20,30).

Using base 60 did make learning times-tables harder :-), so a written version was used.

Babylonian Numbers were written a bit like this

"<< VVV" = 2*10 + 3*1 = 23 
"< VV << VVV" = (1*10+2*1)* 60 + (2*10 + 3*1) *1 = 12*60 + 23*1 = 743

  • Numbers on a Land Purchase Tablet (~2400BC):
    Numbers on a Land Purchase Tablet (~2400BC)
    These show (from the top down), 8 "gur-sag-gal" of barley, 16 "pounds" of wool and 16 "quarts" of oil. In this example, a round mark has been used to represent "10", in the earlier, Summarian, style.

Suprisingly (for me anyway), quite complex calculations were made in Cuniform: square roots, fractions, algorithms for calculating multiplication, quadratic equation solving and more.

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