When I began my math courses this summer, I didn’t expect a 2,000-year-old ancient civilization would be helping me learn about math.
I was wrong.
It turns out that studying ancient numeration systems can actually be quite beneficial when it comes to teaching math, as it demonstrates why certain math systems don’t work and why we have our current system, the Indo-Arabic (aka decimal) system, in place.
The Egyptian numeration system was base-ten like our Indo-Arabic system, meaning that they had different symbols to represent different powers of 10. For example, “a staff” represented 1, “a yoke” represented 10, “a scroll” represented 100, and so on. (Side note: the last symbol, that represents 1,000,000 is often called “an amazed person”, which cracks me up.)
To write a number, the Egyptians would combine symbols additively (see the example above for 4,622). This makes it relatively straight-forward to write a number, but when it came to addition, subtraction, multiplication and division things got complicated and time-consuming. Having students learn the Egyptian numeration system should get them thinking about regrouping, place value, how important zero is and why we use the base-ten system. It’s also a great way to integrate other subjects into math – for example, students could research Egypt’s history and geography, then write a letter to a friend describing what daily life in Egypt is like.
There are several other ancient numeration systems that can be useful to learn, in particular the Roman System, Babylonian System, and Mayan System.The Roman System is important, as it’s still used in a variety of ways today. It’s additive and subtractive (similar to the Egyptian system), which, again, can become quite cumbersome for performing math problems. This can help students understand why we use the decimal system, where adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing are significantly easier to do. The Babylonian numeration system was a base-sixty system that used a variety of symbols similar to arrows. Learning the Babylonian system is beneficial to students, as our current time and angle-measurement system is also base-sixty. The Mayan numeration system was a base-twenty system that used a combination of dots, lines, and “shells”. It’s similar to our current system in that it was a positional system and contained a symbol for zero. To help organize and use these systems further in the classroom, I created a Mind Map through Mindomo that has a variety of resources for teaching ancient numeration systems in the classroom, as well as methods for integration.
Thanks, King Tut!