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St Ives

Stage: 2
Article by NRICH team

Published February 2011.

You have probably heard the old riddle about the man going to St Ives, but it seems that it may be older than you think!"

As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives. The seven wives had seven sacks and the seven sacks had seven cats. The seven cats had seven mice. Wives, sacks, cats, mice: how many were going to St. Ives?

Have you ever tried to solve this problem? It seems that someone once solved a similar problem in ancient Egypt, although in a slightly different context. This problem was found on the Rhind Papyrus:

Houses 7
Cats 49
Mice 343
Spelt 2401
Hekat 16807
TOTAL 19607

This information was found in "The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers" by David Wells, but it didn't say what 'spelt' and 'hekat' were. What do you think they might be?