Why a Nile Tadpole Means a Great Deal

numbers-papyri.jpgFrom The Times

Ancient Egypt’s awkward* numerical system was based largely on the natural world

Recording numbers and quantities was one of the first requirements of the bureaucracy as soon as hieroglyphs had been invented. Items to be accounted for varied from enemies slain in battle and prisoners to how many jars of beer or bunches of onions were needed to accompany the Pharaoh into the afterlife. Inventories of equipment used in temples were kept meticulously and any damage noted down.

The system of writing numbers was logical but cumbersome and took up a lot of space. A vertical or horizontal stroke indicated numbers 1 to 9, a hobble for cattle 10 to 90, a coil of rope 100 to 900 and a lotus 1,000 to 9,000. For higher numerals 10,000 was represented by a finger raised for counting and 100,000 by a tadpole – of which myriads would emerge in the pools left by the Nile’s annual flood. The concept of a million was confined to royal propaganda to convey the sense of the
infinite number of years for which the Pharaoh and his monuments would exist. The notation took the form of a god** with his arms raised to support the sky.


If the above numbers were written under or beside the “mouth” sign, meaning a “part”, then that indicated fractions. However, in measuring bushels of wheat, often used for payment in Egypt which had no coinage, a specialist system of indicating numerals was used. This took the sign of the human eye with the markings of a falcon’s cheek below it – known as the eye of Horus, above – and broke it into separate parts so that the eyebrow, for instance, equaled one eighth and the pupil one quarter. The fractions then added up to 63/64, so the missing 1/64 was supplied magically by the god Thoth who was responsible for mathematical accuracy. Length was measured by the distance between the elbow and finger-tip which we call a cubit and was roughly 20in.

Accurate dating was essential for royal documents and for determining days in temples when specific rituals were performed. In general,though, most people were content to be guided by the three seasons: the Nile flood, the winter sowing of crops and the summer harvest.

It was important to be aware of lucky and unlucky days in the calendar. It was best to stay indoors when it was the birthday of the violent god Seth. If you had the bad luck to be born on that day,then, in modern jargon you would have difficulty getting life insurance.

George Hart is an Egyptologist, formerly of the British Museum

*Pardon me for pointing out that we are talking about a very sophisticated numerical system that allowed ancient architects such as Imhotep, for example, to design and build Pyramids that are technically perfect. Elegance, utility, and whimsy are not mutually exclusive.

**Note the discrepancy between “god” in the paragraph and “scribe” in the image. Hieroglyphs are a bit of a disputed business. Particularly giving the attitude disparity between those who find the system unwieldy and those who appreciate its ability to convey subtlety. Guess which camp I’m in.

I’m a bit more fond of Caroline Seawright’s summary, but I really suggest doing your own research if numbers in particular are your thing.


~ by heycarahe on November 25, 2007.

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