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Basic facts about ancient Egypt.

Egyptian hieroglyphics are in great abundance throughout Egypt. They were essentially indecipherable until 1799 when in Alexandria the trilingual Rosetta Stone was discovered. The Rosetta stone, an irregularly shaped tablet of black basalt measuring about 3 feet 9 inches by 2 feet 4 inches, was found near the town of Rosetta (Rashid) just a few miles nortwest of Alexandria. Written in the two languages (Greek and Egyptian but three writing systems (hieroglyphics, its cursive form demotic script, and Greek, it provided the key toward the deciphering of hierglyphic writing. The inscriptions on it were the benefactions conferred by Ptolemy V Epiphanes (205 - 180 BCE) were written by the priests of Memphis. The translation was primarily due to Thomas Young1 (1773 - 1829) and


Temple at Al Karnak
Jean Francois Champollion (1790-1832)2 (1790-1832), who, very early in his life was inspired to Egyptology by the French mathematician Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier (1768 - 1830). Champollion completed the work begun by Young and correctly deciphered the complete stone. An Egyptologist of the first rank, he was the first to recognize the signs could be alphabetic, syllabic, or determinative (i.e. standing for complete ideas) He also established the original language of the Rosetta stone was Greek, and that the the hieroglyphic text was a translation from the Greek. An unusual aspect of hieroglyphics is that they can be
2.1in read from left to right, or right to left, or vertically (top to bottom). It is the orientation of the glyphs that gives the clue; the direction of people and animals face toward the beginning of the line.

        For the Egyptians writing was an esthetic experience, and they viewed their writing signs as ``God's words." This could explain the unnecessary complexity, in face of the fact that obviously simplifications would certainly have occurred if writing were designed for all citizens.     \includegraphics[width=2.4in ]{rosetta.eps}

The demotic script was for more general use, the hieroglyphics continued to be used for priestly and formal applications.

The Egyptians established an annual calendar of 12 months of 30 days each plus five feast days. Religion was a central feature of Egyptian society. There was a preoccupation with death. Many of Egypt's greatest monuments were tombs constructed at great expense, and which required detailed logistical calculuations and at least basic geometry.

Construction projects on a massive scale were routinely carried out. The logistics of construction require all sorts of mathematics. You will see several mensuration (measurement) problems, simple algebra problems, and the methods for computation.

Our sources of Egyptian mathematics are scarce. Indeed, much of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian mathematics comes not from the hieroglyphics3 (carved sacred letters or sacred letters) inscribed on the hundreds of temples but from two papyri containing collections of mathematical problems with their solutions.

Papyrus, the writing material of ancient times, takes its name from the plant from which it is made. Long-
2.0in cultivated in the Nile delta region in Egypt, the Cyperus papyrus was grown for its stalk, whose inner pith was cut into thin strips and laid at right angles on top of each other. When pasted and pressed together, the result was smooth, thin, cream-coloured papery sheets, normally about five to six inches wide. To write on it brushes or styli, reeds with crushed tips, were dipped into ink or colored liquid.     \includegraphics[width=2.7in]{papyrus_old.eps}
        From the Duke Papryus Archive*

A remarkable number of papyri, some dating from 2,500 BCE, have been found, protected from decompostion by the dry heat of the region though they often lay unprotected in desert sands or burial tombs.

* See the URL:

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Don Allen 2001-04-21