The Archimedes Palimpsest is the earliest known manuscript containing the works by Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 B.C.). Although the work was created more than 1000 years after the death of the Greek mathematician, this work is invaluable because it is much closer to the original source than any other existing copy of Archimedes' works. For instance, it is the only Greek source of the treatise "On Floating Bodies" that deals with the principle of flotation and specific gravity (Archimedes' Principle.) But most importantly, the palimsest contains the only existing copy of "Method of Mechanical Theorems", in which Archimedes explains how he used mechanical means to elucidate his mathematical theorems.

Archimedes recorded his work on papyrus scrolls that only had a limited life time. To save the work for posterity, scribes copies and recopied the work onto new scrolls. This method of duplication underwent little or no change up until the invention of the book in the 4th century A.D. Book printing was still about 1000 years away, but from that time on scribes would bind the parchment manuscripts between wooden boards, which significantly increased the life time for the documents.

The work that we now know as the Archimedes Palimpsest was written in Constantinople during the 10th century A.D. The document is in Greek, written in a two-column format. This is of importance, since text on papyrus rolls was usually written in two narrow columns. It is believed that scribes initially tried to copy the layout of the ancient scrolls in the books, and only later adopted a wide single-column format. Thus, the text of the palimpsest is probably close to the original text by Archimedes.

The author of the Archimedes manuscript is unknown. From approximately 300 A.D until around 1200, Constantinople was an important place for scholars to study the works of the ancient Greeks. Scribes recovered many of the ancient texts and copied them into books. The book is perhaps compiled by a scribe from the royal Byzantine palace, or by a monch from one of the monasteries in the city.

The troops of the fourth Crusade took control of Constantinople in 1204, and this could well have been the end of the Archimedes document. The crusaders destroyed many of the historic monuments, and property they did not care for, including many of the ancient texts that were carefully collected and transcribed for centuries. But there was a direct need for prayer books and Christian texts, and parchment was in short supply. As a result, the Archimedes manuscript was turned into a palimpsest, a Greek word meaning "scraped again."

The palimpsesting of the Archimedes document left little of the original format of the book remaining. The book was taken apart and the entire Archimedes text was scraped off. The erased parchment sheets were cut in half, turned sideways, and overwritten with prayers. Finally, the parchment sheets were bound into a new book.

Ironically, the near-destruction of the Archimedes book proved to be its salvation as well. The book was now a religious text, a sacred document guarded by the Greek Church. The exact travels of the book through the Holy Land are uncertain, but it is almost certain that the monastery of Mar Saba already had the book in its collection around the 16th century. Mar Saba, situated in the Judean Desert between Bethlehem and the Dead Sea, was an important spiritual and intellectual center since 483 AD and it housed many important spiritual texts in its library. The book was used for over 400 years by the inhabitants of the monastery for exorcism of evil spirits, and prayers for the sick.

But the book did not stay in the monastery for good. In the middle of the 18th century, the library of the Greek Patriarchate in Jerusalem collected many books from the surroundings for safekeeping. The library of Mar Saba, including the palimpsest was moved as well. The book did not stay here for long but moved back to Constantinople. to the library of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church is a daughter house (Metochion) of the church by the same name in Jerusalem.

In 1846, a biblical scholar named Constantine Tischendorf visited the Metochion to study the religious texts. He did not find anything of particular interest, "apart from a palimpsest dealing with mathematics." Although Tischendorf did not realize the importance of his finding, he obtained (either by purchasing or stealing) one page from the book. When Tischendorf died, part of his collection including the page of the palimpsest was sold to Cambridge University in England where it remains today. But at that time, the importance of the work was still unknown.

The Danish Philologist Johan Ludvig Heiberg visited Constantinople in 1906-1907 to transcribe the faintly visible Greek text of the palimpsest using only a simple magnifying glass. He soon realized the importance of his findings and published it. The discovery made front page news in the New York Times on July 16, 1907.

It is unclear what happened to the book after Heiberg's discovery. The book left the Metochion, only to show up in the 1930s, in a private collection in Paris, France. The manuscript vanished again from the spotlight until October 29, 1998. On this day, the book was sold at Christie's in New York to a private collector, for the price of $2 million.

In 1999, the Archimedes Palimpsest was on display at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, Maryland. Currently, the Walters is working on the conservation of the palimpsest. The book will be taken apart leaf-by-leaf, and the pages will be stabilized. The analysis of the work has many facets:

  • recovery of the original text and the overprint by imaging experts
  • a new transcription of the Archimedes text by a classicist, with special attention for the schematics and drawings
  • analysis of the overprinted prayer book by a Byzantine liturgist
  • analysis of the ink by a chemist
  • analysis of Archimedes' theories by a scholar of ancient mathematics

This remarkable work allows us a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest thinkers to have lived. Hopefully the efforts of the Walters will save this invaluable work for many centuries to come.


The Walters Art Gallery has a website on the Archimedes Palimpsest at:
http://www.thewalters.org/archimedes

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