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 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
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
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
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
- analysis of the ink by a chemist
- analysis of Archimedes' theories by a scholar of ancient
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