How to count like an Egyptian

May 19

Reading “Count Like an Egyptian: A Hands-On Introduction to Ancient Mathematics,” you get the feeling that David Reimer must be a pretty entertaining teacher.

An associate professor of mathematics at the College of New Jersey, he has taken on the task of explaining ancient math systems by having you use them. And though it’s not easy, he manages to lead you, step by step, through a hieroglyphic based calculation of how many 10-pesu loaves of bread you can make from seven hekat of grain.

He demonstrates how the characters in the zodiac can help you tell time at night (assuming you can see the stars): It’s easier to identify and track “the left heel of Taurus” than some anonymous star in a very crowded sky. He shows you a ruler from ancient Egypt, with objects measured in fingers and palms instead of inches and feet.

He interweaves his math problems with wonderful characters from mythology: Thoth, the god of scribes and wisdom, who on the day an ancient Egyptian was born would change into an ibis, fly down from the moon and inscribe on a hidden brick the day the baby was fated to die. And Gilgamesh, the Babylonian warlord, who wreaked terror on his enemies but was unable to persuade the gods to grant him the one gift he wanted — immortality.

In the preface, Reimer says that love of math is “beaten out of” most children by drills and rules. “Perhaps, by starting over, this time with Egyptian mathematics, you’ll . . . revive some of the delight you felt as a child.”


“Count Like an Egyptian: A Hands-On Introduction to Ancient Mathematics” (Princeton University Press)

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