Professor Gillings of University New South Wales, Australia tackles his subject, which is precisely described in the title, with gusto and thoroughness. This is a fascinating crossover book aimed at those interested in Egyptology, mathematics, and the development of language, writing systems, literacy, and numeracy. As may be expected there are many valuable sidelights on ancient Egyptian society as he discusses famous papyri such as the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (RMP), which was a training manual for scribes, and more mundane papyri such as the payroll details for a Middle Kingdom temple of Illahun (c.2000BC). He also covers the Reisner, Moscow, Kahun, Petrie, and Berlin mathematical papyri.
From the payroll it is clear that there were at least five types of literate employee, who were grouped in status above all other categories, such as temple guards. But the surprises are contained in the salaries: for instance, the lone 'scribe of the temple' earned only as much as one of the four 'Thur guardians'. This indicates that there were many degrees of literacy at this time, and that literacy was not a preserve of the aristocrat and top specialist. (This document also contains some very suspicious arithmetic errors which would have led to salaries being very slightly underpaid, and a 'phantom' worker - enough to convince me that there must have been a class of scribe which we would today call 'auditors'!)
Egyptian maths was based on a pair of elementary concepts: the two-times table, and the ability to calculate two-thirds of any integer or fraction. They were advanced enough to calculate the harmonic mean (which is used to find average speed); find the area of a rectangle, triangle, or circle; and calculate the volume of a cylinder (such as a granary), and last but not least, the volume of a pyramid or truncated pyramid. They also knew and used a variety of integer series and some algebra. They were evidently a long way ahead of the Greeks and eastern scholars as these cultures used Egyptian techniques for many centuries before they were superseded.
Then as now, mathematics was a highly regarded skill, as is shown in the words of a scribe named Ah'mose, who copying the RMP in the time of the Hyksos kings (c.1650BC) began with the words: 'The entrance into the knowledge of all existing things and all obscure secrets' - pretty much how most people feel about math.
This report prepared by Michael JR Jose