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How did Ancient Minoans write fractions?

By David, 17 September 2020 News

Clay tablet with scratched marks on it.

Archaeologists are still trying to decode the Linear A language
Credit: Wikimedia commons/Zde CC-BY-SA 4.0

Around 3500 years ago, the Minoan people lived on the island of Crete. They had a written language, now known as Linear A, which archaeologists cannot decipher. They also had an advanced number system, which experts are finally beginning to crack!

We’ve already decoded a lot of Minoan numbers. They used a simple tally system, with vertical lines for ones, dots or horizontal lines for tens, circles for hundreds, and circles with lines coming out of them for thousands. But occasionally, they had symbols for fractions (numbers smaller than one).

Experts have managed to decode some of these symbols. The symbol known as J turns up the most, and probably means one half. The symbol E is also common, both on its own and alongside J. If E is one quarter, J E together would be three quarters.

There are lots more symbols to decipher and only a small number of tablets that contain them. There’s no way to be sure of what most symbols meant. But we can make a good guess.

A team of Italian experts turned to computers to give their research an extra boost. They counted how often each symbol was used on its own, and how often it was used with other symbols. Then, with a few extra clues, they asked the computer to give values to the symbols, so that simpler fractions would be used more often, and to check there weren’t lots of ways to write the same fraction.

The computer searched through millions of possibilities and gave the experts potential matches. By looking more closely at the tablets, the researchers came up with their best guess at pairing symbols with fractions.

The team also noticed that some of these fractions outlived the Linear A language. For example, in the Linear B language there is a symbol matching the Linear A fraction D D. This symbol is a quantity of wool, representing one third of the biggest wool quantity they measured. In Linear A numbers, D is one sixth, so D D makes one third!

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