## The Secret of Egyptian Fractions

Photo from Library of Congress via pingnews.

Archaeology professor Dr. Fibonacci Jones came home from a long day of lecturing and office work. Stepping inside the front door, he held up a shiny silver disk.

“Ta-da!” he said.

“All right!” said his daughter Alexandria. “The photos are here.”

They had to chase Alex’s brother Leon off the computer so they could view the images on the CD, but that wasn’t hard. He wanted to see the artifacts, too. Alex recognized several of the items they had dug up from the Egyptian scribe’s burial plot: the wooden palette, some clay pots, and of course the embalmed body.

Then came several close-up pictures of writing on papyrus.

Photo from MathsNet.net.

## How to Write Egyptian Fractions

“I remember how to read the Egyptian numbers,” Alex said, “but what are these marks above them?”

Dr. Jones nodded. “I thought you would catch that. Those are fractions. The scribe places an open mouth, which is the hieroglyph ‘r’, over a number to make its reciprocal.”

“I know that word,” Leon said. “It means one over the number. Like, the reciprocal of 12 is 1/12, right?”

“That is right. 1/12 would be written as…”

## The Rest of the Story

As I transcribed this article from my old math newsletter, I realized that it would require more graphics than I was willing to construct. LaTex does not handle Egyptian hieroglyphs — or at least, I don’t know how to make it do so. Instead, I decided to scan the newsletter pages and give them to you as a pdf file:

The file includes a student worksheet for Egyptian fractions from 1/2 to 9/10.

## To Be Continued…

Read all the posts from the January/February 1999 issue of my Mathematical Adventures of Alexandria Jones newsletter.

Remember the Math Adventurer’s Rule: Figure it out for yourself! Whenever I give a problem in an Alexandria Jones story, I will try to post the answer soon afterward. But don’t peek! If I tell you the answer, you miss out on the fun of solving the puzzle. So if you haven’t worked these problems yet, go back to the original posts. Figure them out for yourself—and then check the answers just to prove that you got them right.

## Egyptian Math Puzzles

What we know about ancient Egyptian mathematics comes primarily from two papyri, the first one written around 1850 BC. This is called the Moscow papyrus, because it now belongs to Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The scroll contains 25 problems, mostly practical examples of various calculations. Problem 14, which finds the volume of a frustrum (a pyramid with its top cut off), is often cited by mathematicians as the most impressive Egyptian pyramid of all.

## Alex’s Puzzling Papyrus

(In the last episode, Dr. Fibonacci Jones discovered a torn scrap of papyrus, covered with hieroglyphic numbers. He promised to teach his daughter, Alexandria, how the ancient Egyptian scribes worked multiplication problems using only the times-two table.)

Back at their tent, Dr. Jones handed the papyrus scrap to Alexandria. “What do you see?” he asked.

“Well, there are two columns of numbers,” Alex said. “Let me write them down.” She got a piece of notebook paper and translated the hieroglyphs.

Click on the image for a larger view. Translate the numbers for yourself before reading on. If you need help, read Egyptian Math in Hieroglyphs.

## Egyptian Math in Hieroglyphs

Egyptians 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.