MoMath + Wolfram

Funding for this project generously provided by Overdeck Family Foundation


around1900 BCE–now

Show Your Work!

Doing Math Homework on Clay Tablets, Papyri, Wax Tablets, Bamboo Strips and Birch Bark

"Show your work!" is a phrase that you've probably heard in every single math class. Teachers have been asking students to show their work for thousands of years! We use pencil and paper to show our work, but what did people use a long time ago?

Clay Tablets

In ancient Babylonia, students did their math homework on clay tablets. This math assignment is almost four thousand years old!

Babylonian multiplication tablet

The Babylonians used a system of writing called cuneiform (pronounced kyoo-NEE-uh-form). To write in cuneiform, they used a tool called a stylus to press wedge-shaped marks into moist clay.

Just like we use different sizes of paper, the Babylonians used different sizes of tablets. The multiplication tablet is a little bigger than a large laptop, but much thicker.

Another Babylonian math assignment was done on a tiny handheld clay tablet that is only about the size of a credit card.

Babylonian reciprocals tablet

Babylonians wrote on both sides of clay tablets, just like we write on the front and back of paper. Clay tablets were a lot thicker than paper, though! Sometimes students wrote numbers that wrapped around the sides of the tablets.

Babylonians Even Wrote on the Edges of Their Tablets

When students made a mistake, they could just smooth out the moist clay to erase it. But once the clay dried in the sun, they didn't get another chance to correct their work!

On the Babylonian multiplication tablet, both the student and the teacher made mistakes!

The teacher wrote a multiplication table (the 45 times table) on the left side of the table, and the student copied the multiplication table on the right side. Did you notice that the student's cuneiform is a lot messier than the teacher's?

We all make mistakes sometimes, but how would you feel if your mistakes and your messy work were preserved for centuries?!

You can experiment with making a cuneiform multiplication table by playing with the sliders below.

Make Your Own Cuneiform Multiplication Table

Use the sliders below to build your own cuneiform multiplication table:

Learn More

Learn more about the Babylonian multiplication tablet and the Babylonian reciprocals tablet.

More Babylonian Math Tablets

Other Materials Students Used to Show Their Work Long Ago

Papyrus


Wax Tablet


Bamboo Strips


Birch Bark


Visit the online History of Mathematics virtual exhibit to learn more!