The Quick Report

3,700-Year-Old Clay Tablet Changes History

A pair of mathematicians have finally deciphered the mysterious code of a famous 3,700-year-old clay tablet, changing history by revealing that the Babylonians performed trigonometry 1,500 years before the Greeks.

By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg) via Wikimedia Commons

A 3,700-Year-Old Clay Tablet Has Baffled Scholars for a Century

Sometime around 1922 or 1923, a New York publisher named George Arthur Plimpton purchased a stone clay tablet. He obtained it from an archaeological dealer named Edgar J. Banks. 

Banks, the real-life inspiration for the fictional character Indiana Jones, discovered the tablet in the early 1900s, Sci.news reported.

In 1936, Plimpton bequeathed the stone with the rest of his collection to Columbia University.

The clay tablet is now identified as Babylonian. It is believed to have been written in the ancient city of Larsa, near modern-day Tell as-Senkereh in southern Iraq.

The clay tablet is now outnumbered and known as “Plimpton 322,” where it is stored in the G.A. Plimpton Collection at Columbia University.

For more than a century, despite intense investigation, the purpose of the tablet has mostly eluded scholars. But now, the true purpose of the tablet has been uncovered after an Australian mathematician cracked its code.

The Babylonian Code: 3,700-Year-Old Mystery Stone Finally Deciphered

The mystery of the Babylonian clay tablet known as “Plimpton 322” has finally been revealed. A pair of mathematicians cracked the code by deciphering the ancient writing on this tablet.

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Doctor Daniel Mansfield, and his colleague Doctor Norman Wildberger, took a new approach. And they solved a mystery that has puzzled mathematicians for more than 70 years.

“Plimpton 322 has puzzled mathematicians for more than 70 years, since it was realized it contains a special pattern of numbers called Pythagorean triples,” Mansfield said. “The huge mystery, until now, was its purpose — why the ancient scribes carried out the complex task of generating and sorting the numbers on the tablet.”

Babylonians Performed Trigonometry 1,500 Years Before the Greeks

What the researchers ultimately discovered was that the Babylonians were doing trigonometry 1, 500 years before the Greeks, Upworthy reported.

“Our research reveals that Plimpton 322 describes the shapes of right-angle triangles using a novel kind of trigonometry based on ratios, not angles and circles,” Mansfield continued. “It is a fascinating mathematical work that demonstrates undoubted genius.”

“The tablet not only contains the world’s oldest trigonometric table; it is also the only completely accurate trigonometric table, because of the very different Babylonian approach to arithmetic and geometry,” Mansfield added. 

“Plimpton 322 predates Hipparchus by more than 1000 years,” Wildberger said. “It opens up new possibilities not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education.”

“With Plimpton 322 we see a simpler, more accurate trigonometry that has clear advantages over our own,” Wildberger continued. “A treasure trove of Babylonian tablets exists, but only a fraction of them have been studied yet.”

“The mathematical world is only waking up to the fact that this ancient but very sophisticated mathematical culture has much to teach us,” Wildberger added.