Clay Tablets Show How Babylonian Astronomers Tracked The Planets Using Ancient Geometry


Clay tablets dating back to between 350 and 50 B.C. have revealed that the Babylonians not only tracked the biggest planet in our solar system but also created the birth of calculus while they were calculating Jupiter's movements.

The discovery is crucial as it suggests that Babylonian astronomers were actually utilizing mathematical concepts that are believed to have been born centuries later. It is also the first to produce concrete evidence that the Babylonians used abstract calculations for space study.

The findings were published in the journal Science on Jan. 29.

Humboldt University of Berlin's Mathieu Ossendrijver unearthed the clay tablet while searching through British Museum's vast collection of artifacts. The tablet carvings showed a mathematical technique that can be used to calculate the distance Jupiter has moved across the sky in a given time. Ossendrijver is an ancient science history researcher who translated the ancient carvings.

Ironically, Ossendrijver didn't really set out to discover ancient origins of modern mathematics when he foraged through the British Museum's collections. He was just looking for astronomical tablets when he found an old tablet that had been waiting for decades to be translated.

Ossendrijver ended up finding three more tablets revealing the same mathematical concepts, one of which clearly showed its application in tracking Jupiter's movements. The researcher translated all five tablets.

"[The tablet] testifies to the revolutionary brilliance of the unknown Mesopotamian scholars who constructed Babylonian mathematical astronomy during the second half of the first millennium B.C.," says New York University's Alexander Jones.

Ossendrijver couldn't identify the author of the tablets, although these artifacts often contain signatures or dates of creation. He didn't find any, suggesting the part on which it could have been written might have broken off.

The tablets were first discovered near a temple dedicated to Marduk, a Babylonian god who is represented by the planet Jupiter. Marduk is a patron deity of the city of Babylon. Given such, Ossendrijver was certain the tablet author was probably one of the temple's astronomer-priests.

A few decades ago, scholar Otto Neugebauer also found Babylonian tablets that suggested the same mathematical concepts. However, the findings were inconclusive and the two tablets he found were incomplete and broken.

Ossendrijver didn't find any evidence if the method was used to track other planets, such as Mars and Venus which are easier to track but also move faster. Perhaps other clay tablets in other museums can reveal more ancient clues.

"We always make our objects freely available to scholars and researchers and are truly delighted when one of these valiant workers makes an important breakthrough," says a spokesperson for British Museum.

In October 2015, an assyriologist also discovered tablets from Sulaymaniyah Musuem that revealed new lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh. The tablets are believed to have been retrieved from Iraq (Mesopotamia) and Babel (Babylonia).

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