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Three thousand years of sexagesimal numbers in Mesopotamian mathematical texts

Journal article, 2019

The Mesopotamian system of sexagesimal counting numbers was based on the progressive series of units 1, 10, 1·60, 10·60, …. It may have been in use already before the invention of writing, with the mentioned units represented by various kinds of small clay tokens. After the invention of proto-cuneiform writing, c. 3300 BC, it continued to be used, with the successive units of the system represented by distinctive impressed cup- and disk-shaped number signs. Other kinds of “metrological” number systems in the proto-cuneiform script, with similar number signs, were used to denote area numbers, capacity numbers, etc. In a handful of known mathematical cuneiform texts from the latter half of the third millennium BC, the ancient systems of sexagesimal counting numbers and area numbers were still in use, alongside new kinds of systems of capacity numbers and weight numbers. Large area numbers, capacity numbers, and weight numbers were counted sexagesimally, while each metrological number system had its own kind of fractional units. In the system of counting numbers itself, fractions could be expressed as sixtieths, sixtieths of sixtieths, and so on, but also in terms of small units borrowed from the system of weight numbers. Among them were the “basic fractions” which we would understand as 1/3, 1/2, and 2/3. In a very early series of metro-mathematical division exercises and an equally early metro-mathematical table of squares (Early Dynastic III, c. 2400 BC), “quasi-integers” of the form “integer plus basic fraction” play a prominent role. Quasi-integers play an essential role also in a recently found atypical cuneiform table of reciprocals. The invention of sexagesimal numbers in place-value notation, in the Neo-Sumerian period c. 2000 BC, was based on a series of innovations. The range of the system of sexagesimal counting numbers was extended indefinitely both upward and downward, and the use of quasi-integers was abolished. Sexagesimal place-value numbers were used for all kinds of calculations in Old Babylonian mathematical cuneiform texts, c. 1700 BC, while traditional metrological numbers were retained in both questions and answers of the exercises. Examples of impressive computations of reciprocals of many-place regular sexagesimal place-value numbers, with no practical applications whatsoever, are known from the Old Babylonian period. In the Late Babylonian period (the latter half of the first millennium BC), such computations were still popular, performed by the same persons who constructed the many-place sexagesimal tables that make up the corpus of Late Babylonian mathematical astronomy.