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Twentieth century approaches to Ancient Egyptian Maths: an interdisciplinary collaboration

13 July 2020

Historian of mathematics Dr Christopher Hollings and Egyptologist Professor Richard Bruce Parkinson have worked together on two letters found in the College’s Peet Library, which shed light on the early twentieth century study of ancient Egyptian maths and issues of historical approaches to the ancient world.

The letters, written in 1926, are part of a correspondence between Thomas Eric Peet (1882–1934), who was Professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool (and then later a Fellow of The Queen’s College and Professor-elect of Egyptology at Oxford), and Otto Neugebauer (1899–1990), then a young student in Göttingen. They were recently discovered in the College by Christopher Hollings, inside the copy of Neugebauer’s dissertation that he sent to Peet, and which is now part of the Egyptological library given to the College in Peet’s memory.

Peet had studied both mathematics and classics in Queen’s in the early years of the twentieth century, and in 1923 he published an edition and study of the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, dating from c. 1537 BCE, and now held in the British Museum (P. BM EA 10057–8). The papyrus consists of over 80 arithmetical and geometrical problems and solutions, ranging from the distribution of rations among workers, to the calculation of areas and volumes.  As such, it is one of the most complete surviving sources providing an insight into the mathematics used in ancient Egypt.

Peet’s edition was much praised by both mathematicians and Egyptologists, and reignited academic interest in Egyptian mathematics. One of the people whom his work inspired was Otto Neugebauer, who subsequently wrote a doctoral dissertation on the principles of Egyptian fraction reckoning (as reflected in the Rhind Papyrus).  Neugebauer completed the dissertation in 1926, around the time that he was corresponding with Peet.

The letters between the pair shed light on the way in which ancient Egyptian mathematics was being re-evaluated in the 1920s. In particular, they reveal a contrast between the attitudes of two scholars who approached the subject with different viewpoints. Both were competent mathematicians and Egyptologists, and yet one (Neugebauer) put the mathematics first, and made general assertions about the nature of ancient Egyptian mathematics that arguably owed more to modern ideas about how mathematics ‘should’ be than to the direct evidence of papyri; the other (Peet) brought Egyptological considerations to the fore, drawing conclusions that were more firmly embedded in a knowledge of the cultural context of surviving sources – where Neugebauer saw the limitations of the historical records as gaps to be filled with educated speculation from a modern perspective, Peet preferred a more contextualised approach, confining his analysis largely to what was clearly and unequivocally present in the ancient text.

Perhaps partly because of his early death, Peet’s influence on the later study of ancient Egyptian mathematics was minimal, but Neugebauer went on to become one of the most prominent historians of mathematics of the twentieth century; his work helped to turn the history of mathematics into an academic discipline. It was not until the 1970s that Peet’s culturally-sensitive approach to the history of the subject began to gain ground once again. Both of the different approaches expressed in these letters are still found in the study of ancient mathematics.

An article on this subject by Christopher Hollings and Richard Bruce Parkinson will be published in Historia Mathematica: ‘Two letters from Otto Neugebauer to Thomas Eric Peet on ancient Egyptian mathematics’. Further studies on Peet’s wider work on ancient Egyptian mathematics, and on the renewal of interest in that topic during the 1920s, are in preparation.

Christopher Hollings is Departmental Lecturer in Mathematics and its History in the Oxford Mathematical Institute, and Clifford Norton Senior Research Fellow in the History of Mathematics at The Queen’s College. Richard Bruce Parkinson is Professor of Egyptology and a Fellow of The Queen’s College. 

Part of this article is reproduced from a case study on the Mathematical Institute website: Changing attitudes towards ancient arithmetic: reconciling mathematics with Egyptology.  The letters were featured in an exhibition in the College library.

Image: display of Egyptian antiquities in the Peet Library, by David Olds