The History of Mathematics

Egyptian Numbers and Mathematics

Did the Egyptians eventually develop different numerals?

Yes, the Egyptians used another number system called hieratic numerals after the invention of writing on papyrus. This allowed larger numbers to be written in a more compact form. For example, there were separate symbols for 1 through 9; 10, 20, 30, and so on; 100, 200, 300, and so on; and 1,000, 2000, 3,000, and so on.


The number 3,577 is represented above using hieroglyphs (top) and hieratic symbols (bottom). Notice these numbers are read from right to left.


The symbols for 1/5, 1/10, and ½ are represented above using hieroglyphs.

The only drawback was that the system required memorization of more symbols—many more than for hieroglyphic notation. It took four distinct hieratic symbols to represent the number 3,577; it took no less than 22 symbols to represent the same number in hieroglyphs, but most of those symbols were redundant.

Both hieroglyphic and hieratic numerals existed together for close to 2,000 years—from the third to the first millennium B.C.E. In general, hieroglyph numerals were used when carved on such objects as stone obelisks, palace and temple walls, and tombs. The hieratic symbols were much faster and easier to scribe, and were written on papyrus for records, inventories, wills, or for mathematical, astronomical, economic, legal—or even magical—works.

Even though it is thought that the hieratic symbols were developed from the corresponding hieroglyphs, the shapes of the signs changed considerably. One reason in particular were the reed brushes used to write hieratic symbols; writing on papyrus differed greatly from writing using stone carvings, thus the need to change the symbols to fit the writing devices. And as kingdoms and dynasties changed, the hieratic numerals changed, too, with users having to memorize the many distinct signs.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Math Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App