The Archimedes Palimpsest Project: Eight Years of Research
We are most indebted to Archimedes for contributions he made to the understanding of basic principles of physical phenomena. This is reflected in the many legends that are attributed to him. However, it is in his mathematical treatises that his true genius is to be discovered. The story of the survival of these treatises down to our own time is intricate and complicated, and has been traced in extraordinary detail. It is through three manuscripts that we know the texts of Archimedes treatises in Greek. One was last seen in 1311, a second was last seen in the 1550s, and the third is the Archimedes Palimpsest.
In October 1998, the Archimedes Palimpsest was sold to a private American collector at Christie’s in New York. The collector deposited the manuscript at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, renowned worldwide for its extraordinary holdings of medieval manuscripts and its expertise in manuscript conservation. It has since become the subject of a worldwide campaign of conservation, imaging, and study, to fully reveal texts in the manuscript obliterated by a medieval priest over 750 years earlier. When the manuscript was sold at auction in 1998 it was described as “perhaps the most important scientific manuscript ever sold at auction.” It has since become the most important palimpsest in the world.
THE ARCHIMEDES PALIMPSEST PROJECT
The project to retrieve the hidden texts of the Archimedes Palimpsest is unusual: it is a private enterprise conducted for the public good. The campaign is entirely funded by the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, whose aim is to make all the images and all the text recovered freely available to all, on the internet. Our first set dataset is now publicly available at www.archimedespalimpsest.net. The project is far from complete, but spectacular discoveries have already been made.
The manuscript was known to contain seven treatises by Archimedes. It is the only source for On Floating Bodies in the original Greek, as well as The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion.
- In the last eight years, entirely new pages of On Floating Bodies have been discovered and transcribed.
- Studies of the Stomachion have lead to a radical reinterpretation of this work; it is now considered the first western study in a particular field of mathematics called combinatorics.
- Study of the Method of Mechanical Theorems has fundamentally changed our understanding of Archimedes’ historic place regarding the two conceptually related fields of infinity and the calculus.
In 1998, the palimpsest was sold as an Archimedes text, but the parchment from several other books was used to make up the manuscript. It is clear that the scribe of the prayerbook had an extraordinary library at his disposal.
- In 2002, it was discovered that 10 pages contained speeches by one of the greatest orators of ancient Athens—Hyperides, who was a contemporary of Aristotle and Demosthenes. Well known though he was in antiquity, no medieval manuscript of his work was previously known to exist. His speeches were known only through papyrus fragments discovered in the nineteenth century. One of the newly discovered speeches was given by Hyperides shortly after the battle of Chaeronea, when Phillip of Macedon defeated the independent city states of ancient Greece. Phillip of Macedon was the father of Alexander the Great, who took part in the battle and is mentioned in the speech.
Further unique texts in the palimpsest are expected to be revealed in coming months.
THE IMAGING PROGRAM
Because the texts in the manuscript are almost invisible to the naked eye, the scholarly discoveries have been built on the back of the most advanced imaging techniques ever applied to a medieval manuscript.
- Since 2000, the manuscript has been completely imaged by Rochester Institute of Technology and The Johns Hopkins University using a technique known as multispectral imaging. Most imaging of ancient documents relies on one particular wavelength of light to capture very faint text. The Archimedes Palimpsest is such a complicated document that no one wavelength can do the job. However, a combination of ultraviolet images and images taken with natural light has revealed 80% of the hidden texts.
- Even these advanced techniques were insufficient to recover texts on some of the leaves on the manuscript. The text is simply too faint, or the parchment is too badly stained. On several pages, forged paintings added in the 20th century to elevate the manuscript’s value, have been applied over the text. The multi-spectral imaging techniques have not worked on these pages. A number of techniques are currently being pursued to retrieve these texts, but by far the most successful technique has been x-ray fluorescence using synchrotron radiation. This is currently being undertaken at the Department of Energy’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
CONSERVATION OF THE PALIMPSEST
The Archimedes Palimpsest is an extraordinarily fragile and unique key to the mind of the greatest mathematician of the ancient world. All imaging and scholarship is being done after conservation of the manuscript.
- The conservation team is led by Abigail Quandt, Senior Conservator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The Walters Art Museum. In order effectively to image the undertexts in the palimpsest, the book had to be taken apart. Because many pages had been glued together with commercial wood glue, it took four years to completely disassemble the book. A myriad of tiny tears were mended, and the leaves were carefully cleaned of seven hundred years of dirt and wax.
The Owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, CEO
Will Noel, Walters Art Museum, Program Director
Michael B. Toth, R.B. Toth Associates, Program Manager
Doug Emery, Independent Consultant, Data Manager
Carl Malamud, Center for American Progress, Data Hosting
Joe McCourt, Bark at the Moon Studio, Website
Abigail Quandt, Walters Art Museum, Chief Conservator
Jennifer Giaccai, Walters Art Museum, Conservation Scientist
Roger Easton, Rochester Institute of Technology
Keith Knox, Boeing LTS
William A. Christens-Barry, Johns Hopkins University
Uwe Bergmann, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
Martin George, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
Bruce Scruggs, EDAX Inc.
Gene Hall, Rutgers University
Robert Morton, Children of the Middle Waters
Jason Gislason, Children of the Middle Waters
Reviel Netz, Department of Classics, Stanford University
Nigel Wilson, Lincoln College, Oxford
Natalie Tchernetska, Riga
Laszlo Horvath, University of Budapest
Chris Carey, University College, London
Patricia Easterling, Newnham College, Cambridge
Jud Herrman, Allegheny College
Eric Handley, Trinity College Cambridge
Colin Austen, Trinity College Cambridge