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T. E. Peet, a Mathematician Among Egyptologists?

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Research in History and Philosophy of Mathematics

Abstract

During the 1920s, the study of ancient Egyptian mathematics was particularly vigorous, with the emergence of new sources, and new editions of old ones. A central figure, and virtually the only professional Egyptologist in this activity, was Thomas Eric Peet (1882–1934). Before embarking on an archaeological career, Peet had studied mathematics at university, which probably accounts for the major interest that he subsequently took in Egyptian mathematics. Although he never pursued mathematics professionally, he sometimes referred to himself as a “mathematician”, presumably as a means of distinguishing himself among Egyptologists. Elsewhere, however, he used the word in a much less complimentary way to refer to those scholars who took a mathematically focused and uncontextualised approach to the study of ancient mathematics. This article examines three different ways in which Peet employed the word “mathematician”, thereby illuminating both his own career trajectory and self-presentation, and also the way in which different disciplines interacted within the study of ancient mathematical texts.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For an up-to-date general account of ancient Egyptian mathematics, see Imhausen (2016).

  2. 2.

    Most recently, Imhausen (2021, p. 44) has described it as a “remarkable achievement” (“eine beachtliche Leistung”).

  3. 3.

    In connection with Eisenlohr’s edition, Francis Llewellyn Griffith noted that “time treats Egyptological commentaries hardly” (Griffith 1891/1894, p. 26, n. †, his emphasis).

  4. 4.

    The first easy account of the RMP was that provided by Cantor (1880). Others appeared, for example, in Vashchenko-Zakharchenko (1883), Cajori (1894), and Tropfke (1902/1903).

  5. 5.

    In the case of Neugebauer, see, for example, Ritter (2016) and Hollings and Parkinson (2020).

  6. 6.

    In the interests of brevity, we will omit all background detail save that which is of immediate relevance to the discussion. We plan to write on this topic more fully elsewhere. Some preliminary work in this direction may be found in Hollings and Parkinson (2020). A longer study will appear as Hollings and Parkinson (2023).

  7. 7.

    For biographies of Peet, see Bierbrier (2012, pp. 420–421), Gardiner (1934a), and Gunn and Simpson (2004). For his bibliography, see Uphill (1979). See also Lewis (2014; 2016).

  8. 8.

    Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: Peet MSS 4.4.1, Rev. Canon S. C. Armour to T. E. Peet, 24th October 1904 (testimonial).

  9. 9.

    In some biographical notes on Peet (Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.1, ‘Thomas Eric Peet’), written shortly after his death by an old schoolmate, the economic historian Charles Ryle Fay (1884–1961), we find the following comment: “At Oxford they foolishly (as he and I thought) made him read both classics and mathematics at the same time, and therefore he got two seconds, instead of the first which he could have got in either subject”.

  10. 10.

    In a 1923 letter to the biologist, mathematician, and classicist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860–1948), Peet commented: “I have read little [mathematics] since Math. Mods” (University of St Andrews Library, Department of Special Collections: Papers of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Correspondence to Professor Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson from Thomas Eric Peet, m23968, 25th November 1923).

  11. 11.

    See, for example, Peet (1920a; 1923a; 1930c).

  12. 12.

    Gunn and Simpson (2004).

  13. 13.

    Gunn and Simpson (2004).

  14. 14.

    See, for example, Gardiner (1934b) and Anon (1934).

  15. 15.

    Myres et al. (1934, p. 532).

  16. 16.

    Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: NEWB 2/576, 36/36, Peet to Newberry, 2nd October 1913.

  17. 17.

    This is reflected in their correspondence—see, for example, Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.123, Peet to Gardiner, 30th April 1925.

  18. 18.

    Peet and Gardiner discussed Borchardt’s book and his proposed chronology in several letters; see Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.219, 216, 211, 210.

  19. 19.

    Peet (1920b, p. 149).

  20. 20.

    Glanville (1934, pp. 63–64).

  21. 21.

    Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.177(1), Peet to Gardiner, 28th September 1921.

  22. 22.

    Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.176(1), Peet to Gardiner, 7th December 1921.

  23. 23.

    Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.176(1), Peet to Gardiner, 7th December 1921. The problem in question was no. 43, which appears in Peet’s edition of the RMP (p. 82) as: “A circular container of 9 cubits in its height and 6 in its breadth. What is the amount that will go into it in corn?” Two pages of commentary follow, which Peet prefaced with the remark: “This is one of the most difficult problems in the papyrus”.

  24. 24.

    Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.176(1), Peet to Gardiner, 7th December 1921. By the time the first volume of Chace’s edition appeared in 1927, Chace had evidently learnt of the work that he had previously overlooked (principally, Schack-Schakenburg 1899). Chace (1927/1929, vol. I, p. 88) fully accepted Schack-Schakenburg’s solution, and dismissed the concerns that Peet had earlier raised about it in his commentary on the problem.

  25. 25.

    Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.176(1), Peet to Gardiner, 7th December 1921.

  26. 26.

    Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.39, Peet to Gardiner, 19th May 1930.

  27. 27.

    Peet had earlier made similar comments about his own edition of the RMP (and perhaps, by extension, the whole topic of Egyptian mathematics): “[t]he interest is almost more mathematical than Egyptological” (University of St Andrews Library, Department of Special Collections: Papers of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Correspondence to Professor Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson from Thomas Eric Peet, ms23967, Peet to Thompson, 2nd November 1923).

  28. 28.

    Peet was probably the only Egyptologist with an interest in reviewing Chace’s edition and to have written a critical Egyptological review that would have implicitly asserted the superiority of Peet’s own edition would not have been in his character, which was exceedingly modest where his own published works were concerned. For example, upon seeing Neugebauer’s completed doctoral dissertation, which drew upon Peet’s edition of the RMP, he wrote to Gardiner: “his is an admirable piece of work and makes me if possible more dissatisfied with my Rhind than I was before” (Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.92, Peet to Gardiner, 16th October 1926).

  29. 29.

    The original text of the papyrus reads from right to left, but Egyptological practice is to write the standardised transliteration of the Egyptian script from left to right, for ease of reading. Chace’s edition, however, includes transliterations that run from right to left, matching the direction of the script.

  30. 30.

    See, for example, the recent comparison of the editions in Imhausen (2021).

  31. 31.

    See Hollings and Parkinson (2020).

  32. 32.

    See, for example, Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.92, Peet to Gardiner, 16th October 1926 (quoted in Hollings and Parkinson 2020, p. 90).

  33. 33.

    Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.39, Peet to Gardiner, 19th May 1930. ‘Struve’ is the orientalist V. V. Struve (1889–1965), who published an edition of the MMP under the encouragement of Neugebauer (Struve 1930). The edition was reviewed critically but politely by Peet (1931c) and discussed more forthrightly in private correspondence (Griffith Institute Archive, Oxford: AHG/42.230.42, 39, 38, 29; University of St Andrews Library, Department of Special Collections: Papers of D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, Correspondence to Professor Sir D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson from Thomas Eric Peet, m23969).

  34. 34.

    See, for example, the comments in Stedall (2012).

  35. 35.

    Imhausen (2018) has used the term “(mathematical) expert” in the ancient Egyptian setting.

  36. 36.

    Peet (1931b, p. 420, n. 2).

  37. 37.

    Peet (1931b, pp. 440–441).

  38. 38.

    Elsewhere, for example, we find the Egyptologist Alexander Scharff (1892–1950) referring to Neugebauer as “the mathematician” (“der Mathematiker”) (Ritter 2016, pp. 155, 159).

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to the staff of the Griffith Institute, Oxford, and of the University of St Andrews Special Collections for their help in accessing the letters that are cited in the present paper. Thanks are also due to Keith Hannabuss for providing us with details of mathematics teaching in Oxford at the end of the nineteenth century.

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Hollings, C.D., Parkinson, R.B. (2023). T. E. Peet, a Mathematician Among Egyptologists?. In: Zack, M., Waszek, D. (eds) Research in History and Philosophy of Mathematics. Annals of the Canadian Society for History and Philosophy of Mathematics/ Société canadienne d’histoire et de philosophie des mathématiques. Birkhäuser, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-21494-3_11

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