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The Babylonian mind

Trace the legacy of Babylonian discoveries and ideas, including their mathematical system based on 60 and their desire to predict the future. With British Museum curator Irving Finkel. © Trustees of the British Museum. Created by British Museum.

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Video transcript

This dragon here called a Mušḫuššu is about 2500 years old And it comes from Nebuchadnezzar's capital city Babylon in the middle of ancient Iraq And when you see it now, when you look at it and look in its eye it might strike you as something very alien and very distant and nothing to do with the modern world Well the culture from which it comes the Babylonian world is surprisingly close to ours and the thinkers and the writers and the poets and the mathematicians of that ancient culture came up with things which still exist today in our modern lives and are a part of our daily lives all around us These Babylonian discoveries and ideas are conveyed to us through the ancient form of writing called Cuneiform written on tablets of clay or stone The Babylonian language is fully understood today so that many of their ideas and achievements have been preserved for us Great engineers have come up with very ingenious machinery to measure the passage of time And one of the interesting things about the ancient Babylonians was that they had a mathematical system based on sixty not on ten like we do today And one consequence of this is the fact that our own time division of the minute and the hour into sixtieth parts is a direct inheritance of a principle which goes back to ancient Babylon And it's come down to us somehow through the Greeks who looked at Babylonian ideas incorporated them into their own work and maintained this sixty figure as a central calculating device And that is why everyone who has a watch on their wrist or a clock on their kitchen wall is somehow perpetuating the work of these ancient Babylonian thinkers The Babylonians were always attempting to predict the future This clay model of a sheep's liver, complete with gallbladder was used to teach the art of divination zones and Cuneiform inscriptions revealing the ominous signs Much later people relied on dreams or the stars for their portentous messages Another thing that has come to us from ancient Babylon are the signs of the Zodiac And this goes back a long way already in the second millennium some of the figures which became the zodiac figures were already to be found on monuments And side by side with the Zodiac grew up in the late period the idea of the horoscope so the thing when you open your newspaper and you look up your star sign and read what it predicts or you get a horoscope those two ideas likewise come from ancient Babylon