Hands-on in the Hearst Museum

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The public galleries of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology are closed for renovation and won’t re-open to the public until 2017, but some lucky students in Berkeley Connect Math got a chance to tour a portion of the museum’s vast collection (approximately 2.5 million objects). The students had the opportunity to view historical and anthropological material with mathematical content. The highlight of their experience was closely examining ancient Babylonian tablets.

Near Eastern Studies Professor Niek Veldhuis introduced the students to a collection of tablets, encouraging them to look at them closely under lamps. Some of the tablets were over four thousand years old. They were primarily from Babylon and Iraq, and had been collected by a predecessor of Veldhuis in the 1930s. According to Veldhuis, many of these tablets contained information related to administering labor. “People started writing these records when the metropolis began bustling,” he explained. They inscribed the tablets by writing with pieces of reed on wet clay. Veldhuis went on to explain in detail the notation these ancient Mesopotamians used.

Instead of having an alphabet like we do in English, signs instead represented specific objects, such as a single sign that stands for “sheep.” This early system of writing is called cuneiform, which dates back to 3200 BCE. As for the cuneiform system of numbers, they used a base-60 positional numeral system.

“Does cuneiform have a corresponding spoken language?” asked one student. The answer to this is Akkadian and Sumerian, two mostly extinct languages. Today, some scholars still know Sumerian. “It’s important to know it for understanding history,” explained Veldhuis. “Human life can be lived in so many different, meaningful ways, and we can look at history to find that.”

Veldhuis asked the students to try and determine which side of a tablet was up. He explained that the front is always the flatter side. Also, he explained that the tablets could never get very big, because “once you’ve taken a tablet out, you only have 1-2 hours to write on it before it dries,” he said. There are generally not more than six columns on each side.

The tablets are made out of clay, so they are almost always broken. “You can often supply what must have been there in the cracks, though,” added Veldhuis.

After examining the tablets, the students went on a walking tour to visit more of the collection, seeing artifacts ranging from a marble depiction of Plato to a collection of ancient Peruvian beer jugs. Students viewed dice games and snowshoes from native Alaskan tribes, as well as Egyptian sarcophagi and crocodile mummies. It was an amazing opportunity for students to see ancient objects that remain hidden from public view but are fueling important research into human societies and cultures.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant