The Archimedes Palimpsest

by davidbjensen

palimpsest (palimp sest′), n.  a parchment or the like from which writing has been partially or completely erased to make room for another text.  [1655-65;  <  L  palimsēstus  <  G  palímpsēstos  rubbed again  =  pálin again + psēstós  scraped, rubbed, v.  adj.  of psân to rub smooth]

The Archimedes Palimpsest

So here’s the historical breakdown, convoluted as it may be:

Circa mid 3rd century BCE, the great mathematician/physicist/astronomer of antiquity, Archimedes, writes some of his most significant treatises and equations on a series of papyrus scrolls in Syracuse.  Then, approximately 1,200 years later, transcriptions of the scrolls were handwritten onto parchment leaves by a scribe working in Constantinople, and bound into folio codex form around the year 1000 CE.  Roughly 200 years later, a Christian monk scrapes the parchment clean (well, almost) and hand writes prayers in Greek over the mathematical text, thereby creating the palimpsest.  The new prayer book is used in religious study for centuries, but ends up being stored in the Greek Orthodox monastery, Mar Saba–one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world–for several more centuries into the future.  Fast forward to 1906, Danish philologist and historian, Johan Ludvig Heiberg, discovers the ancient manuscript, transcribes what he can make out of the obscure base layer text using only a microscope, and photographs each page (the transcriptions and images are later published as part of his doctoral dissertation entitled Quaestiones Archimedeae.).  Fast forward again to 1998…to make a long story short, the manuscript had gone missing, and through a series of rediscovery and changes of ownership, the mysterious little book found its way onto the stage of Christie’s auction house in New York City, where it sold to an anonymous private collector for $2 million.

In a nutshell, that’s the historical lineage of how this project–what I’m really getting around to telling you about–came to be.  Not long after its purchase in New York, the artifact was deposited at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in order to conserve it, image it, and study it.  A team of experts from a variety of disciplines–conservators, bibliographers, paleographers, mathematicians, physicists–was assembled in order to achieve these tasks.

The most impressive part of all of this, to me anyway, is the unimaginably sophisticated imaging techniques used to illuminate and decipher the ancient writings.  It’s all spelled out on the project’s official website, but essentially, this is what happens:  nothing shy of a particle accelerator is used to generate a certain wavelength of x-rays, which, when turned onto the leaves, cause ferrous deposits left by the original iron gall ink to glow without damaging the parchment on which they’re written…and the sub-written text can then be examined plain as day.  Amazing!

All of the resulting work performed by these astute scientists has been compiled and made digitally accessible and freely available for public for use with the only stipulation being to give credit where credit is due.  Ironically, the wealthy benefactor of this elaborate project wishes to take no credit and insists on remaining anonymous.

The project is headed by William Noel, Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Walters Art Museum.  He gave a brilliant TED talk, which encapsulates this fascinating project.  If you find this as interesting as I do, I highly recommend watching this short clip:

Likewise, check out the project’s homepage, featuring all of the ins-and-outs of this undertaking, other video clips, and numerous links to well-respected publications on the topic:

And one last thing…for a succinct timeline on the chronology I ran through above, you can view a PBS Nova article at:


Random House Webster’s College Dictionary.  New York:  Random House Reference,  2005.

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