Finding Archimedes in a Prayer Book

Archimedes palimpsest

How do you read a two-thousand-year-old manuscript that has been erased, cut up, written on and painted over?

The manuscript in question is of great importance to the history of science. It is the Archimedes Palimpsest. This thirteenth century prayer book contains erased texts from earlier centuries including two treatises by Archimedes that can be found nowhere else. Those two are The Method and Stomachion.

Archimedes was a Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer.Among his advances in physics are the foundations of hydrostatics, statics and an explanation of the principle of the lever. He is credited with designing innovative machines, including siege engines and the screw pump that bears his name. Modern experiments have tested claims that Archimedes designed machines capable of lifting attacking ships out of the water and setting ships on fire using an array of mirrors. Archimedes is generally considered to be the greatest mathematician of antiquity and one of the greatest of all time. He used the method of exhaustion to calculate the area under the arc of a parabola with the summation of an infinite series, and gave a remarkably accurate approximation of pi.He also defined the spiral bearing his name, formulae for the volumes of surfaces of revolution and an ingenious system for expressing very large numbers.

Archimedes Thoughtful by Fetti (1620)

What is a palimpsest? In this case, a 10th-century scribe in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) copied the Archimedes treatise in the original Greek onto parchment. In the 13th century, a monk erased the Archimedes text, cut the pages along the center fold, rotated the leaves 90 degrees and folded them in half. The parchment was then recycled, together with the parchment of other books, to create a Greek Orthodox prayer book. This process of erasing and reusing parchment is called palimpsesting.

This prayer book is the kind of artifact that we expect to find in museums so that the public can see and learn from them.  Unfortunately (though it will turn out to be fortunate), the manuscript sold at auction to a private collector in 1998. Thankfully, the new owner deposited the manuscript at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland  where it has gone through conservation, imaging and scholarship.

The Archimedes Palimpsest project has revealed in revealing the erased text information about Archimedes and the ancient world. These new texts include speeches by an Athenian orator from the fourth century B.C. called Hyperides, and a third century A.D. commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.

The story of how the conservators did this is an interesting technology detective story itself (see video below) and involves using a particle accelerator.

But who amongst us will read a Byzantine prayer book with writings from ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes?  Without question, it is very few of us. But, should we have access to that information and should it be preserved both in its delicate paper form and in digital versions? Yes.

William Noel has spearheaded the conservation of the Archimedes Palimpsest  and helped to reveal in its parchments the hidden writings from the three original previously-unknown texts. They have also put all their images and findings on the Internet, available to anyone for free under a Creative Commons license.

Though most of will not read the codex, some of us will read about the Archimedes Codex  It pleases me in this mixing of ancient and cutting edge technology that people will be reading about the codex on a Kindle and, as the book’s subtitle says, learn how a medieval prayer book reveals the genius of antiquity’s greatest scientist.

William Noel is the Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Walters Art Museum and luckily he is also into technology, social media and openness and stresses its value even for the oldest, most established academic and cultural institutions. Noel believes passionately that institutions should free their digital data.

Read more about William Noel in the TED Blog Q&A >>

View Noel’s TED Talk

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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