Contrary to popular belief, the building of the pyramids and the running of the Egyptian state did not require complex mathematics. There’s no question that the construction of such impressive monuments and the running of the world’s first nation state relied on a great deal of precision, but we must be careful not to confuse precision and care with complexity!
In fact, most of the mathematics required in ancient Egypt was simple addition, subtraction and the recording of amounts. For this reason, Egyptian mathematical symbols are quite simple.
The hieroglyphs for the numbers from 1 to 9 were simple strokes. If you wanted to say “one star,” you wrote the word for star, followed by a stroke:
To say “three stars” you would simply use three strokes:
The Egyptians always put the noun before the numbers, so in a literal sense you would say “star one” or “star three”
Counting above 9
The simple strokes work for 1 to 9, but when we get to 10 and above, we have a new hieroglyph: the hoop
Twenty stars would therefore be:
Literally, ‘stars twenty’.
Twenty-three stars would be: :
???? ? ???
The larger unit—in this case the 10s—comes first.
There are additional hieroglpyhs for bigger numbers – much like we find with Roman numerals.
For 100, we use a coil of rope: ?
For 1,000, we use the lotus flower: ?
For 10,000, we use a finger: ?
For 100,000, we use a tadpole: ?
For 1,000,000, we use the god Heh with his arms up: ?