Archimedes Palimpsest

  • Arts & Culture
  • 2011

In 1998, an anonymous billionaire purchased a horribly preserved medieval prayer book at a Christie’s auction for $2 million. The reason for the gaudy price? The battered volume also contained the most important scientific manuscript ever sold at auction. The book was a palimpsest—a text written on top of an older text (because parchment was once so precious that books no longer appreciated often had their pages washed or scraped clean, and then recycled into new books). Underneath the thirteenth-century prayers were the erased contents of seven ancient works, nearly all of them previously lost to civilization, including two hitherto unknown essays by the third-century B.C. Greek mathematical genius Archimedes.

Portions of the previous text were visible as ghostly shadows, and had been translated in the early 1900s. But after the anonymous donor purchased the palimpsest he deposited it at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and donated additional funds, supplemented by gifts from the Selz and Stockman Family foundations, so that the manuscript could be studied, conserved, and then presented to the public. Curators proceeded to disassemble, clean, and analyze the work. Over a 12-year period, more than 80 experts contributed to this philanthropically funded effort, culminating in an X-ray scan at Stanford that detected residual iron atoms from the iron-based ink of the original texts. That allowed scholars to read large sections of previously hidden text.

In addition to previously unknown works of history, philosophy, and politics, there were two important treatises by Archimedes: The Method of Mechanical Theorems, which explores the concept of infinity and anticipates many of the techniques of calculus, and Stomachion, the earliest Western theorizing in mathematical combinations of a sort that are now central to modern computing.

The Stanford scan also discovered the name of the scribe who erased the Archimedes text and other ancient writings and transcribed the prayers on top: Johannes Myronas, who finished his work on April 14, 1229, in Jerusalem. The prayer book was apparently then used for centuries in the monastery at St. Sabbas in the Judean desert. All of this is fascinatingly documented in a layman’s book, Internet postings, and a multi-volume work from Cambridge University Press that presents actual images of the processed pages with transcriptions—thanks to the anonymous donor who started the whole investigation, and his insistence that all findings and images be shared directly with interested scholars and members of the public.

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