The voyage of the Archimedes Palimpsest

Reading the works of genius of an ancient Greek mathematician took quite a few centuries, and quite a few adventures

The Archimedes Palimpsest

Mike Selby

Early in the 13th century, a monk stationed in Jerusalem takes a book from his shelf, and begins to erase its contents.

Books at this time were remarkably costly to make, and many were recycled in this fashion: Text during this time was handwritten on parchment — treated animal skins prepared to make them suitable for writing on (a single book could take hundreds of animal skins). For reuse, one simply had to scrape away the book’s previous text, which is exactly what this monk did, so he could fill the book with a series of prayers.

What he didn’t know was that he was scraping away the only existing copy of the mathematical treaties of Archimedes. An ancient Greek mathematician, Archimedes was centuries ahead of his time. His work is often called “the eighth wonder of the world” … or would have been had it not been erased to make room for a new prayer book.

After completing the series of prayers, the monk probably returned the book to the shelf, and began on his next project. An inventory list reveals the book made its way to a sister monastery in Istanbul. Unfortunately it arrived in the middle of the Fourth Crusade, whose participants were burning books en masse.

How this book escaped the flames is unknown, but it did and weathered much more for the next 700 years. It shows up again in 1906, when a Danish scholar stumbles upon it in Turkey. Its ink has faded over the years and — with the help of a magnifying glass and a candle — the scholar can faintly make out a second text underneath the main one. The scholar’s examination ends here, as someone steals the book out from under him.

It surfaces again in 1930. A couple from France purchase it from a Turkish antiques dealer, put it in their basement with all their other knickknacks, and promptly forget about it for the next 70 years.

This brings us to 1991, when the descendants of the French antique collectors bring it to Christie’s, wanting to know if it is worth anything. It is appraised at $1.2 million, but actually sells for twice as much in 1998.

Since then, the prayer book — now titled as “The Archimedes Palimpsest” — resides in an art museum in Baltimore, Maryland, where modern imaging techniques have been used to expose the entire text of Archimedes’ lost writings.

While Archimedes is renowned for his mathematical genius, experts were stunned to find out just how advanced he was. The lost text revealed Archimedes had worked out calculus and the principal of infinity a full 2,000 years before modern science rediscovered them.

The text of the “Archimedes Palimpsest” was set down by the man himself on a series of papyrus scrolls, around 210 B.C.  It appears these were copied onto more scrolls, as papyrus doesn’t last very long. Experts estimate it was about 1,000 A.D. when the text was copied onto the parchment book. But by whom, and for what reason remain a mystery.