By Jonathan Lopez
Beneath the surface of a medieval manuscript, conservators have discovered lost texts and diagrams by Archimedes, showing how far ahead of his time the ancient scientist was.
On October 29, 1998, a 13th-century Greek Orthodox prayer book came up for sale at Christie’s New York. Its pages were blackened with mold, its edges charred as if by fire, and yet it fetched $2 million dollars. Since that day, conservators, manuscript experts, historians and scientists from around the globe have worked to stabilize and investigate this humble-looking volume, which merits such painstaking care because it is a palimpsest—an erased and overwritten document—of profound cultural importance. Hidden beneath the book’s neatly written columns of prayers, one can discern faint traces of a much older text, the only extant copy (made in the 10th century A.D.) of essential works by the ancient Greek scientist and mathematician Archimedes (circa 287–212 B.C.), providing insights into his thinking available nowhere else.
“Lost & Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” an exhibition opening October 16 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore (through January 1), presents 24 disbound, meticulously conserved folio sheets from the Archimedes Palimpsest and offers an in-depth account of the book’s origins, historical travails and modern recovery. The Walters’ curator of manuscripts, William Noel, who has acted as director of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project since its inception 12 years ago, notes that specialists now have a better understanding of this book’s hidden depths than at any time since the priest-scribe Ioannes Myronas undertook to scrape away and overwrite the words and diagrams of Archimedes in the year 1229. “Dedicated scholarship,” says Noel, “has brought these erased texts back to light.”
Noel first became involved with the Palimpsest shortly after the Christie’s sale, when he tried to convince the buyer to put the book on temporary display at the Walters. Because the buyer remained anonymous at the auction—the press could discover only that he is an American and that he is “not Bill Gates”—Noel approached the dealer who had acted as the buyer’s representative. To Noel’s surprise, the mysterious owner promptly showed up in Baltimore with the Palimpsest, ready not merely to have it exhibited but to fund a far-reaching scholarly project to conserve and study it and to disseminate any information it might contain. Noel recalls that the owner, whose identity remains a secret to this day, did not have a specific budget in mind for this ambitious undertaking. “He said only that he had paid $2 million for the Palimpsest, and he hoped not to spend more than that on the project.”
The Walters was a natural choice to take the lead in working on the Palimpsest. “The museum has a remarkable manuscript collection,” says Noel, and in consequence, the institution has been able to attract leading professionals in the field. Noel, himself a Cambridge University-trained authority on medieval manuscripts, notes that his colleague Abigail Quandt, head of conservation for books and paper at the Walters, has worked on high-profile documents ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the precious 14th-century Livre d’Heures de Jeanne d’Évreux at the Cloisters in New York. Quandt brings an especially important talent to the conservation of the Palimpsest, whose pages are made not of paper but of parchment. “She is a parchment expert,” says Noel, “and very few people have her skills.”
Parchment, a versatile writing surface prepared from dried animal hide, is extremely durable and can withstand centuries of active use in books or manuscripts. But when it gets wet or is stored under damp conditions, it becomes susceptible to various species of microorganisms, including mold and fungi, which feast on dead organic matter. Mold had so seriously degraded the Archimedes Palimpsest that Noel feared it would disintegrate in his hands when he first examined it in 1999. Although the damaging effects of mold cannot be reversed, Quandt was able to halt the progress of the destruction. And by making innumerable, almost invisible, repairs to the individual pages, she insured the physical integrity of the Palimpsest for future generations.
One of the greatest challenges Quandt faced was disbinding the Palimpsest, a vital step not only for the conservation process but for reading the erased Archimedes text. When Ioannes Myronas and his colleagues harvested the parchment from the Archimedes manuscript for reuse in the prayer book, they scraped away the original text, which apparently held no interest for them, cut the pages along the spine edge, rotated them by 90 degrees and folded and rebound them in a way that yielded a new book with pages roughly half the size of the original. As a result, key portions of the Archimedes text were trapped in the gutter of the prayer book’s spine. Complicating matters, at some point during the 20th century a misguided restorer attempted to strengthen the prayer book’s sewn binding with a modern synthetic glue such as might be used by woodworkers. “For Abigail to free those pages from the binding without further damage or loss was a delicate and time-consuming operation,” says Noel. “The glue was stronger than the parchment.”
Although the whereabouts of the Archimedes Palimpsest were a mystery during much of the latter half of the 20th century, it had already been identified as an important text in 1906, when it was examined by the renowned Danish historian Johan Ludvig Heiberg. Using the naked eye, simple magnifying devices and black-and-white reference photographs, Heiberg was able to decipher and transcribe substantial portions of the Archimedes text, which he published to great acclaim. But impressive though this accomplishment was, Heiberg had to work with the bound book and therefore could not read any of the sections hidden in the gutter. And he did not have access to any of the advanced technologies, such as ultraviolet, multispectral and x-ray imaging, that Noel and his team would be able to deploy.
“Different kinds of light let you see different aspects of the Palimpsest,” says Noel. Computers allowed the images produced by differing wavelengths of light to be consolidated into various composite views, making possible a nuanced and layered analysis of the erased and overwritten text.
X-rays proved particularly helpful in penetrating through a series of saints’ portraits—modern forgeries based on medieval prototypes—that were introduced into the manuscript sometime during the early 20th century, probably to dress up the book for sale. “An old manuscript might be valuable to a library or a specialist collector,” says Noel, “but a beautifully illustrated book generally commands a much higher price on the art market.” In order to map the iron-based ink of the Archimedes text beneath these forgeries, an x-ray beam would need to be extremely focused and powerful; scanning a full page using a device with the power of standard medical x-ray equipment, for instance, would take months or years. Noel and his team therefore brought the Palimpsest to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, in Palo Alto, Calif., where they used the particle accelerator itself as a source of x-ray emissions. Even so, as Noel recalls, “each page still took 17 hours.”
Once the recovered text was fully imaged, mapped and made available for scholarly scrutiny, it revealed a fuller and more complex vision of Archimedes than was previously known. Prof. Reviel Netz of Stanford University, an authority on Archimedes and the primary historian of science involved in the project, quickly saw how much of the Palimpsest had eluded Heiberg in 1906. “Archimedes’ diagrams are incredibly important because Greek mathematicians thought in diagrams, not in equations,” says Noel. “When Reviel saw the very first folio that Abigail disbound, he immediately identified diagrams that Heiberg hadn’t seen.”
These initial discoveries soon led to larger finds. The Palimpsest’s text of Archimedes’ Method, a work that survives nowhere else, shows that Archimedes, in the third century B.C., already possessed a sophisticated understanding of the mathematics of infinity that would not be arrived at again until approximately 1900 years later, when Newton and Leibniz developed the calculus. The Palimpsest’s unique version of another work, the Stomachion, shows Archimedes employing the principles of combinatorics, an important discipline in modern mathematics hitherto unseen in any surviving text from the ancient world. Noel and Netz give a fuller account of these and other revelations in their book The Archimedes Codex (Da Capo Press, $18), which offers a detailed look at the methodology and accomplishments of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project as a whole. In addition, many fascinating images and video clips relating to the project can be found online at www.archimedespalimpsest.org.
Asked whether the owner of the Palimpsest considers the project a success, Noel says, “He was very interested in the idea of using high technology—computers, imaging equipment, information systems—to liberate the knowledge in this very old document and make it accessible, basically to anyone, anywhere in the world, who has a desktop. And that’s what we’ve done.”