Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Earliest Symbols for Zero

The Bakhshali manuscript is an ancient Indian mathematical manuscript written on more than 70 leaves of birch bark. It was found in 1881. It is notable for having a dot representing zero. This symbol then grew into something that today captures the concept of nothing.

A team of researchers at the University of Oxford and the Bodleian Libraries carbon dated the manuscript and found that it dates from between 200 and 400 AD. This use of a symbol of zero is older than the zero symbol found on the ninth century Gwailor temple manuscript found in India.


By 1740 BC, the Egyptians used the Nefer symbol (shown above) for zero. It resembles an inverted ankh. When this glyph appears with two horizontal lines at the top and a flag to its left it represents "The Good God."

The symbol is related to the hieroglyph for beauty (neferu).The symbol appears in the name of the famous queen Neferitti and in the title Nefer-neferu-aten (cartouche shown below). It usually appears in a set of three or four and with an empty oval.

Birth name of Neferneferuaten: Nefer neferu Aten, akhet en hyes

The ancient Egyptians used the nefer symbol to indicate the base level in drawings of tombs and pyramids, and distances were measured relative to the base line. In building construction, horizontal leveling lines were used to guide the construction of pyramids and other large monuments. One of these leveling lines was labeled "nfr," or "zero." Other horizontal leveling lines were spaced 1 cubit apart and labeled as "1 cubit above nfr," "2 cubits above nfr," or 1 cubit, 2 cubits, etc. below nefer.  Thus, zero was used as a reference for a system of numbers and measurements in ancient architecture.

Related reading: The Origin of the Zero

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