Egyptian Math in Hieroglyphs

Pyramids clip artEgyptians wrote in hieroglyphs, a type of picture writing, and in hieratics, which were like a cursive form of hieroglyphs.

Hieroglyphs came first. They were carved in the stone walls of temples and tombs, written on monuments, and used to decorate furniture. But they were a nuisance for scribes, who simplified the pictures and slurred some lines together when they wrote in ink on paper-like papyrus. This hieratic writing — like some people’s cursive today — can be hard to read, so we are only using hieroglyphic numbers on this blog.

Download this page from my old newsletter, and try your hand at translating some Egyptian hieroglyphs:

Then try writing some hieroglyphic calculations of your own.

Edited to add: The answers to these puzzles (and more) are now posted here.

To Be Continued…

Read all the posts from the September/October 1998 issue of my Mathematical Adventures of Alexandria Jones newsletter.

The Mysterious Temporal Freeze

Pyramids clip artAlexandria Jones stepped into the huge tent that protected her father’s excavation site from the desert winds. She laughed to herself. It was like walking into a circus.

She knelt down to whisper in the ear of her faithful dog Ramus. “In this ring, grad students carefully brush away another layer of sand. In the next ring, the artist sketches every piece as it is found.” She waved her arm. “And over there, our flashiest attraction — drum roll, please — the photographers shoot each shard of pottery from every possible angle. But where is the Master of Ceremonies?”

Alex and Rammy found Professor Jones near the back of the tent, talking to another student. While she waited for her dad, she looked through an assortment of numbered artifacts that were ready to be packed and sent to the museum.

Continue reading The Mysterious Temporal Freeze

Historical Tidbits: Alexandria Jones

[Read the story of the pharaoh’s treasure: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]

Alexandria JonesHere are a few more tidbits from math history, along with links to relevant Internet sites or books, and three more math puzzles for you to try. I hope you find them interesting.

Next time, a new adventure (sort of)…

Continue reading Historical Tidbits: Alexandria Jones

Historical Tidbits: The Pharaoh’s Treasure

[Read the story of the pharaoh’s treasure here: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]

I confess: I lied — or rather, I helped to propagate a legend. Scholars tell us that the Egyptian rope stretchers did not use a 3-4-5 triangle for right-angled corners. They say it is a myth, like the corny old story of George Washington and the cherry tree, which bounces from one storyteller to the next — as I got it from a book I bought as a library discard.

None of the Egyptian papyri that have been found show any indication that the Egyptians knew of the Pythagorean Theorem, one of the great theorems of mathematics, which is the basis for the 3-4-5 triangle. Unless a real archaeologist finds a rope like Alexandria Jones discovered in my story, or a papyrus describing how to use one, we must assume the 3-4-5 rope triangle is an unfounded rumor.

Continue reading Historical Tidbits: The Pharaoh’s Treasure

The Secret of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, Part 3

[In the last episode, Alexandria Jones discovered a mysterious treasure: three wooden sticks, like tent pegs, and a long loop of rope with 12 evenly spaced knots. Her father explained that it was an ancient Egyptian surveyor’s tool, used to mark right angles.]

Back at the camp, Fibonacci Jones stacked multi-layer sandwiches while Alexandria poured milk and set the table for supper.

“Geometry,” Fibonacci said.


Geo means earth, and metry means to measure. So geometry means to measure the earth. That is what the Egyptian rope stretches did.”

Alex thought for a moment. “So in the beginning, math was just surveying?”

“And taxes…”

Continue reading The Secret of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, Part 3

The Secret of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, Part 2

[In the last episode, Alexandria Jones, daughter of the world-famous archaeologist, caught her father’s arch-enemy trying to uncover the Pharaoh’s Treasure.]

…”I can’t believe it!” Simon Skulk threw down the last stone in disgust and walked away. At the mouth of the cave, he turned back and shook his fist. “You haven’t seen the last of me, Alexandria Jones.”

Her muscles aching, Alex sank to the ground and hugged her dog. The she gave him a little push toward the front of the cave. “Rammy, go get Dad.”

Ramus barked once and took off running.

Alex turned back to look at the Pharaoh’s Treasure. Where the last stone had stood was a hole. In the hole lay three wooden sticks, like tent pegs, and a long loop of rope with 12 evenly-spaced knots.

What could it be?

Continue reading The Secret of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, Part 2

The Secret of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, Part 1

Alexandria JonesAlexandria Jones stood outside her father’s tent. The glare of the sun on the rocky desert hurt her eyes. Holding up a hand to shield her gaze, she spotted her dad (the world-famous archaeologist) arguing with the foreman.

Poor Dad, she thought. He was sure this was the right site, but so far he’s found nothing.

She looked down at her feet, where her faithful dog Ramus waited, panting. “Well, Rammy, it looks like Dad will be busy for while. What do you say? Shall we go exploring?”

Alexandria ducked into the tent for her backpack and canteen.

Thump! Something bounced against the side of the tent. Ramus barked.

Alex stepped outside and looked quickly around. No one was in sight. She saw a fist-sized rock beside the tent, with a note tied to it. She picked it up and read:

Ha! The real Pharaoh’s Treasure lies under a pyramid of stones, and it’s mine. You can’t stop me this time! —Simon Skulk

Continue reading The Secret of the Pharaoh’s Treasure, Part 1