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These problems reflect well the functions the scribes would perform, for they deal with how to distribute beer and bread as wages, for example, and how to measure the areas of fields as well as the volumes of pyramids and other solids.

The Egyptians, like the Romans after them, expressed numbers according to a decimal scheme, using separate symbols for 1, 10, 100, 1,000, and so on; each symbol appeared in the expression for a number as many times as the value it represented occurred in the number itself. This rather cumbersome notation was used within the hieroglyphic writing found in stone inscriptions and other formal texts, but in the papyrus documents the scribes employed a more convenient abbreviated script, called In such a system, addition and subtraction amount to counting how many symbols of each kind there are in the numerical expressions and then rewriting with the resulting number of symbols.

A considerable portion of the papyrus texts is devoted to tables to facilitate the finding of such unit-fraction values.

These elementary operations are all that one needs for solving the arithmetic problems in the papyri.

For example, “to divide 6 loaves among 10 men” (Rhind papyrus, problem 3), one merely divides to get the answer 1/2 1/10.

In a more complicated problem, a rectangle is sought whose area is 12 and whose height is 1/2 1/4 times its base (Golenishchev papyrus, problem 6).

To solve the problem, the ratio is inverted and multiplied by the area, yielding 16; the square root of the result (4) is the base of the rectangle, and 1/2 1/4 times 4, or 3, is the height.

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