[INDOLOGY] Once again on the origin of zero: the date of the Bakhshali manuscript (or manuscripts?)

Andrea Acri andrea.acri at ephe.sorbonne.fr
Fri Sep 15 00:41:35 UTC 2017

Dear Camillo

thank you for sharing this news, and especially for your (in)valuable work on this most important document. Let me point out at the very outset that all I know about this manuscript derives from the Guardian article and Wikipedia (disclaimer: I have no access to a library right now!), so please forgive me for being so naive. 

If the manuscript (however fragmentary it may be) is thought to contain a single, unitary text, then the date of its copying (and/or composition?) must be the 9th-10th century. I fail to see what is so sensational about this apart from the fact that it shows how writing supports that were centuries older might have been (re)utilized.  (By the way: is an analysis of the ink technically possible?). The earliest attestation of the written zero would still be the 8th-century Southeast Asian inscriptions (and not the Gwalior temple, as incorrectly reported in the article).

But in your message, when you speak about different stratas and tables of ak.saras, you clearly imply that this/these manuscript(s) contain(s) a composite/heterogeneous text indeed, and that part of it might date back to the 3rd-4th century. May I ask you to anticipate/synthesize some of your key findings here, or at least clarify this point? And, what is the relationship between folios 16 and 17? Do all these folios contain the 0? 

Further: I'm not steeped in mathematics either, so I fail to grasp the full implications of this statement (especially the second sentence):

"In the fragile document, zero does not yet feature as a number in its own right, but as a placeholder in a number system, just as the “0” in “101” indicates no tens. It features a problem to which the answer is zero, but here the answer is left blank".

Hopefully some of our learned colleagues will be able to clarify this point.

Best regards 
Andrea Acri

Sent from my iPhone

> On 14 Sep 2017, at 17:15, Camillo Formigatti via INDOLOGY <indology at list.indology.info> wrote:
> Dear Colleagues,
> I’m pleased to be finally able to share this exciting news with you:
> https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/sep/14/much-ado-about-nothing-ancient-indian-text-contains-earliest-zero-symbol
> I imagine that some of you might probably raise their eyebrows after reading this article. The results came as a big surprise to us too, and to me were literally jaw-dropping. I realize that these results have several implications not only for the history of mathematics, but also for our field of study, and I know that the article in The Guardian surely doesn’t answer the many questions you might be asking yourselves now. I will try to briefly anticipate some of them.
> The decision and implementation of radiocarbon dating the Bakhshali manuscript took several months of preparation on the part of the team of colleagues with which I collaborated. The team included colleagues from the Bodleian Libraries and other University of Oxford departments: David Howell (Bodleian Libraries’ Head of Heritage Science), Dr Gillian Evison (Head of the Bodleian Libraries' Oriental Section & Indian Institute Librarian), Virginia M Lladó-Buisán (Bodleian Libraries’ Head of Conservation and Collection Care), Dr David Chivall (Chemistry Laboratory Manager at the School of Archaeology of the University of Oxford), and Prof. Marcus du Sautoy (Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Professor of Mathematics at the Oxford University). We decided to take samples from three folios in order to be sure to have a sensible margin of certainty for the results. I chose folios 16, 17, and 33, and the analysis was conducted by Dr Chivall at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. The results of the calibrated age (95.4% confidence interval / cal AD) are as follows:
> Folio 16:               224 (95.4%) 383calAD
> Folio 17:               680 (74.8%) 779calAD
> 790 (20.6%) 868calAD
> Folio 33:               885 (95.4%) 993calAD
> We did not expect such a big difference in the date range of the three folios. I am currently preparing an article in which I provide the background for the choice of these three specific folios, tables of all akṣaras from the three folios as an aid to assign the extant folios to the different strata of the manuscript (including selected aksaras of other dated and undated manuscripts in similar scripts for comparison), and a first palaeographical appraisal of the results.
> Best wishes,
> Camillo
> Dr Camillo A. Formigatti
> John Clay Sanskrit Librarian
> Bodleian Libraries 
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