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Exploring Ancient Mathematical Symbols

By: Evie Rose Grace

Exploring Ancient Mathematical Symbols

So, maths has been around for a long time, right? But we haven’t always used the “numbers” we do now to record our equations. So what has maths looked like throughout history?

Early Mathematicians

Let’s start at the very beginning, when early man became early mathematician.

Basically we have been doing mathematics since near the beginning of our existence; knowing the difference between one lot of something and two lots of said things. But until the Nneolithic era, there hadn’t been much need for a system of written symbols as such. And then at this time we needed maths for measurements of land for agriculture, and currency for trade.

Some of the earliest forms of maths were markings showing the moon’s phases and the change of seasons. For tens of thousands of years humankind has been using tally marks to record our counting.

Ancient Egypt

Now let’s skip ahead a few thousand years to ancient Egypt. Lots of fascinating mathematical things started to happen at this time, take hieroglyphics for example; the ancient Egyptians had a system for communicating their mathematical ideas!

Hieroglyphics is a captivating number system, using pictures to represent values. The hieroglyphic system is base ten, like the system we use now. The symbol for one was a line, and then for ten it was an arch, and one hundred was a coil of rope, and one thousand was a flower, ten thousand: a pointing finger, one hundred thousand: a toad, and one million was depicted as a man. And then if you wanted to write more of a value, you would just write the equivalent amount of the appropriate depiction. For example; three thousand would be three flowers, and the number nine would be nine lines.

The ancient Egyptians even had a symbol for infinity; which was just a circle.

Now that we have established the basic numbers, let’s learn how to complete our equations with the hieroglyphic operation signs!

The hieroglyphic symbols for addition and subtraction resembled two feet. When the feet were facing the same way as the numbers, it represented addition, and if the feet faced the other way, it represented subtraction.

Hieroglyphics is said to be a very complicated system, but when it comes to numbers I think that it is actually rather simple as you only have to remember nine symbols!

Babylonian Mathematics

Now let’s delve into Babylonian maths symbols.

To begin with the Babylonians didn’t have a base ten system like hieroglyphics or our current system, their system was base sixty.

The Bbabylonians split their days with twenty four in each of them, they also made each hour sixty minutes long, and each minute sixty seconds.

The Babylonians had fifty nine symbols, made from two bedrock symbols.

With ones being

and tens being

. Making say thirty two, for example,

Equations didn’t have operations, instead they just left a space where an operation would be in a common equation now. For example twenty plus three:

Now I do find the Babylonian system rather complicated! Each symbol is so intricate!


Now we have finished our short journey through the history of mathematics, we can conclude that some ancient civilizations had quite an advanced number system! And that there is a much larger demand for mathematical equations and symbols now.


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