Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Infinite Possibilities: Ten Years of Study of the Archimedes Palimpsest1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Infinite Possibilities: Ten Years of Study of the Archimedes Palimpsest1

Article excerpt

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THE ARCHIMEDES PALIMPSEST is a tenth-century parchment manuscript that was erased early in the thirteenth century and overwritten with a book of Orthodox Christian prayers called the Euchologion. The book is so named because the original texts beneath the prayerbook were recognized early in the twentieth century to include partial copies of seven treatises by Archimedes, the oldest extant reproductions of writings by the Greek mathematician, scientist, and engineer. Important as these writings are, we now know that historically important writings by other Greek authors also were erased and used as pages in this same codex.

The manuscript was sold at auction in 1998 and lent by its anonymous owner to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, which has supervised a ten-year effort to conserve, image, transcribe, and translate the writings hidden beneath the pages.2 This paper concentrates on the scientific techniques applied to analyze and read the original texts in the manuscripts.


Almost everything known about the work of Archimedes comes from three manuscripts, designated by Johan Ludvig Heiberg as codices A, B, and C. Only parts of seven treatises in the last of these, a Byzantine codex from the tenth century, survive. Among these seven treatises are the only extant copy of On the Method of Mechanical Theorems, the only extant copy of Stomachion ("Stomachache," perhaps the oldest known study of combinatorics), and the oldest known example in the original Greek of Archimedes' most famous work, On Floating Bodies. The other treatises in the codex are On the Measurement of the Circle (in which Archimedes derived an excellent estimate of the value of tt), On the Sphere and Cylinder (where he proved that the factor relating volumes of a sphere and its enclosing cylinder is 2/3), On Spiral Lines (where he derived the area of a single revolution of a spiral - his invention - to be 1/3 that of the enclosing circle), and On the Equilibrium of Planes. Of the seven works, the Method is arguably the most significant, as it outlines Archimedes' thinking process for proving mathematical conjectures based upon mechanical analogies.

The original Archimedes manuscript was made in the tenth century, probably in Constantinople. It was a fairly large book, with each parchment leaf measuring approximately 20 cm in width and 30 cm in height. In the thirteenth century, the pages were disbound, the text erased from the parchment, and the bifolia cut in half along the fold in the gutter. A copy of the Euchologion was written over these newly cleaned pages and sheets from several other codices. Based upon readings of the colophon of the Euchologion obtained as results of this project, we now know that a scribe named Ioannes Myronas copied the Euchologion, which was dedicated on Saturday, 14 April 6737 (corresponding to Easter Saturday, AD 1229). Recycling of books in this way was a common practice due to the expense of treating goat or lamb skin to make new parchment and was feasible because of the durability of the material. The individual leaves of the new book measure approximately 15 cm wide and 20 cm tall and the new writings are perpendicular to the erased originals on all but one bifolio. As a result, a few lines of the original writings are hidden in the gutter of the bound prayerbook on each leaf.

Iron gall ink was used for the prayerbook text and most, if not all, of the original texts that were erased. The ink of the later Euchologion is dark brown in color and the characters are quite readable on most pages, whereas the visibility of the erased texts ranges from obvious to virtually invisible. The remaining ink stains are generally more "reddish" in color than the overtext.

The prayer book was used in Christian Orthodox services at the Monastery of St. Sabas in the Judean desert for hundreds of years. In the 1800s, the book was placed in the library of the Metochion of the Holy Sepulcher in Constantinople, where its presence was noted in 1 844 by Constantin von Tischendorf. …

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