Babylonian mystery solved: 3700-year-old 'Indiana Jones' tablet reveals its secrets

by Dominic Parks August 26, 2017, 1:16
Babylonian mystery solved: 3700-year-old 'Indiana Jones' tablet reveals its secrets

'The huge mystery, until now, was its objective - why the ancient scribes carried out the complex task of generating and sorting the numbers on the tablet'.

A Babylonian clay tablet dating back 3,700 years has been identified as the world's oldest and most accurate trigonometric table, suggesting the Babylonians beat the ancient Greeks to the invention of trigonometry by over 1,000 years.

The tablet, known as Plimpton 322, was discovered in the early 1900s in what is now Southern Iraq by archaeologist, academic, diplomat and antiquities dealer Edgar Banks, who provided the inspiration for the fictional character 'Indiana Jones'. The ancient tablet has numbers written in 15 rows and four columns.

Now the mystery has been solved by scientists who claim the tablet displays a trigonometric table that is both the world's oldest and most accurate, due to the unique Babylonian approach to arithmetic and geometry. "It is a fascinating mathematical work that demonstrates undoubted genius", said Dr. Daniel Mansfield, of the University of New South Wales' School of Mathematics and Statistics in Sydney, Australia, according to Newsweek. The group's research was published in the journal Historia Mathematica.

After conducting a historiographical analysis of the tablet's purported goal, Mansfield and Wildberger took a closer look at the tablet and its inscriptions.

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From what remains, the researchers have dubbed it one of the most accurate trigonometric tables ever, thanks to its reliance on ratio-based measurements instead of angles, but others aren't convinced.

"It opens up new possibilities not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education", he said. If the UNSW study does show how the tablet was used to find approximate solutions to equations involving triangles, only speculative historical context can determine exactly how the tablet was applied in day-to-day life said Wildberger.

But if the new study is right, then the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who lived about 120 BC, is not the father of trigonometry that he's always been regarded as. Descending down the tablet, the ratios decrease the triangle's inclination, creating narrower triangles. Hipparchus' "table of chords" was thought to be the oldest trigonometry table. Though the left edge of the tablet is broken, the researchers believe there were originally 6 columns and that the tablet was meant to be completed with 38 rows. In the study, the authors used the ancient base 60 system to demonstrate how scribes would have arrived at the numbers that were chiseled on Plimpton 322.

A key feature of Babylonian mathematics is that it used a clock-like sexagesimal number base of 60 rather than the decimal base-10 system.

Plimpton 322's usefulness may not end with such applications, though. "The mathematical world is only waking up to the fact that this ancient but very sophisticated mathematical culture has much to teach us", Wildberger said.

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