1
$\begingroup$

Currently, I am reading "Foundations and Fundamental Concepts of Mathematics Third Edition" by Howard Eves, and I have came across this paragraph:

In our study of early mathematics we are restricted to that of Egypt and Babylonia. The ancient Egyptians recorded their work on stone and papyrus, the latter fortunatly enduring because of Egypt's unusually dry climate; the Babylonians used impershible clay tablets. In contrast to the use of these medias, the early Indians and Chinese used very perishable writing materials like bark and bamboo. Thus it has come to pass that we have a fair quanity of definite information, obtained from primary sources, about the science and mathematics of ancient Egypt and Babylonia, while we know very little indeed, with any degree of certainty, about these fields of study in ancient India and China. $$-\text{Chapter One: Mathematics Before Euclid, Page 2, Paragraph 2}$$

Which begged the question of "If there exist little of Chinese and Indian math records because of the durability of the materials that they were written on, then what items do we current have?" Which led to me asking this question in the Mathematics Chatroom for further discussion on the topic. I eventually learned about the existence of the following items:

Then it became apparent to me: how long will these items last before they too degrade and are lost? As the biggest reason we do not have Chinese/Indian works was because they the materials they were made out of was super biodegradable, and thus degraded before they were preserved properly. These mentioned works, and more, are also susceptible to this even in a proper museum space.

While I understand that many of these items exist in museums and are being well-preserved by staff, I can't control myself from being filled with some sort of inner sorrow that eventually these items will degrade with time regardless of the amount of physical preservation, and the information on them will be lost. Thus, I am utterly curious on these prominent two questions:

  • Are there an ongoing plans for these type of works to be digitized to preserve their information?$^{[1][2]}$
  • What is the expected amount of time left for most of early, hand-held, Pre-Hellenistic mathematics works made of the mentioned raw materials?$^{[3]}$

In addition, I am also curious to more examples of ancient Indian and Chinese Mathematics that wasn't listed above that's also made from materials like bamboo and bark, as there should (hopefully/realistically) be more than those two that was mentioned.


$[1]$ Digitizing works via flash photography or scanning is often dangerous because the bright lights emitted by cameras and such can damage them, so I'm also really curious if there are ways people have gotten around this, or is this just an assumed risk if the piece is going to degrade anyways?

$[2]$ Upon further study on this, I was able to find the Library of Congress's rules for digitizing works. While it is a stretch, I feel like these rules would apply themselves to other institutions and how they handle digitizing old work. In addition, they have an online catalog of digitized material already.

$[3]$ Of course, Egyptian math that exists on the walls of pyramids will stand to resist time for probably longer than humanity itself. So we should limit this to things that fit the definition of it being humanly portable, like clay tablets, written documents, books, etc.

$\endgroup$

1 Answer 1

1
$\begingroup$

I ended up emailing the Bodleian Library at Oxford about how they are preserving the Bakhshali manuscript.

Here is their reply to my email (I retracted names for privacy reasons):

Dear [Retracted],

Many thanks for your email.

The Bakhshali manuscript (MS. Sansk. d. 14) has not been digitized to date, but you can see one folio online here: https://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/bakhshali-manuscript/. I am copying this to our Imaging Services team who are best placed to advise on our digitization services, but please rest assured that the preservation of material is always the first priority on any such project.

This manuscript is stored and consulted at the Weston Library, the Bodleian’s dedicated special collections library. As such, the environment (temperature, relative humidity and light levels) is controlled and monitored to ensure that it adheres to national standards. I believe that the current standard is BS 4971:2017, but our Preventive Team (copied in) will be able to advise you further on this.

You can read a little more about the Weston Library here: https://estates.admin.ox.ac.uk/weston-library-refurbishment.

I am also copying this to the Sanskrit Curator, [retracted], who might be able to advise you further.

Best wishes,

[Retracted]

They linked the British Standard for conservation and care of library collections, which in part basically answered most of questions on the ground how these works are expected to be stored, and how they are preserved:

One of the most common causes of damage to archive and library collections is an unsuitable storage environment. Getting the storage environment and temperature “just right” is therefore essential, with advice given in the standard. There are obvious risks with damp conditions, which encourage mould, but also with excessively dry conditions, which can make some archives – such as acid-decayed papers – more inflexible. Pest management is also covered.

Lighting can cause damage to collections, with some materials more sensitive than others. BS 4971 includes a table with four columns for users of the standard to ascertain the appropriate light sensitivity of their collection, ranging from no sensitivity to high. Diagrams for shelving, with guidance on spacing and the most appropriate dimensions to construct storage for a collection, is covered in the standard.

The responses I got from the imaging department was nothing more than the stock response they give to everyday people asking for imaging services, which conveyed the message that they were not at all interested in the email at all. However, this line in the first email I feel like answers this:

The Bakhshali manuscript (MS. Sansk. d. 14) has not been digitized to date, but you can see one folio online here: https://treasures.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/treasures/bakhshali-manuscript/.

If it has not been digitized to date, and the fact that the standard states "Lighting can cause damage to collections, with some materials more sensitive than others." then it would be reasonable to assume they will never digitize it as it will be too much of a risk for permanent damage of an already fragile piece. Thus, I feel like this would continue to be the case for other works as well.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.