Studying Old Babylonian mathematical diagrams: a project at the crossroads of assyriology and history of mathematics

Adeline Reynaud – University Paris 7 Diderot

Besides plans of fields and buildings, maps, representations of organs, archival marks, or labyrinths,is there another type of drawings appearing on cuneiform clay tablets, that is often mentioned but has so farrarely been studied per se: the so-called mathematical diagrams, an expression by which we usually refer togeometrical figures produced in the framework of mathematical activities. In this talk, I would like to explainwhat we can learn from a minute examination of these very specific objects, which can be found on roughlya hundred of mathematical documents, and in particular how their analysis can help us better understandsome of the mathematical practices of the Old-Babylonian period.By doing so, I will strive to shed light on the ways in which methods and questions inspired both bystudies in assyriology and studies in history of mathematics can be brought together and articulated for thispurpose. I will for instance discuss how assyriological works on writing techniques and writing instrumentscan be applied to the reconstitution of the techniques for producing diagrams, and what the careful materialstudy of the diagrams as artefacts can reveal on the complex and varied roles they played in mathematicalreasonings. Conversely, I will also attempt to indicate which perspectives the understanding of themathematical properties of these visual aids can open about more general assyriological issues, such as theplace of oral practices and non-textual elements in scientific activities or the study of scientific subcultures inthe Old-Babylonian Near East.