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Primary Magazine - Issue 5: A little bit of history

This page has been archived. The content was correct at the time of original publication, but is no longer updated.
Created on 27 November 2008 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 17 December 2008 by ncetm_administrator

Primary Magazine Issue 5

A little bit of history - Babylonian numerals

The Babylonians lived in Mesopotamia, which is between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Thumbnail map of Mesopotamia

Click the thumbnail to download a larger map.

They began one of the oldest number systems in the world about 5 000 years ago. We know about it from clay tablets which have been found in the area. There are many thousands of these tablets still around today, some of which are in the British Museum in London.

Their system began with tally marks just as most of the ancient number systems did. The Babylonians developed theirs based on wedge-shaped symbols which they imprinted, using a stylist, onto wet clay tablets and then baked them in the hot sun.

They had a very advanced number system even for today's standards. It was a base 60 system rather than a base ten, the one we use today. 

The Babylonians divided the day into twenty-four hours, each hour into sixty minutes, and each minute to sixty seconds. This form of counting has survived for four thousand years and is the basis of our time system.

Here are the numbers to 70, made of just two symbols (click here to download a larger scale copy of these number charts).

In the Babylonian system, numbers to 59 stay in one column like our ones/units to 9, when the extra number is added the 60s column begins as does our 10s. At 60, lots of 60, as with 10 lots of 10, the next column begins in this case for 3 600 instead of our 100s.

Click here to download a copy of these number charts for use with the children. Can they work out how to write different Babylonian numbers using the information?

Information in this article was sourced from the following websites:

Association of Teachers of Mathematics
Babylonian Numbers
Wichita State University

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