Archimedes found in the Shadows

This is a story of the the Archimedes Palimpsest.


A tale which I believe reveals much about how ancient wisdoms are still being found, earthed for the first time in modernity’s 24-hour white light gaze.  This is the stuff of ripping yarns, of details which bedazzle – this could be W.H.Smith pulp thriller fiction content.

Archimedes lived in the 3rd century, B.C. and is considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.  In his lifetime, he invented many incredible mechanical devices.  Archimedes proved that the volume and surface area of a sphere are two thirds that of the cylinder including its bases.


During his lifetime, he produced two works – the “Method” and “Stomachion” which until recently, were almost completely unknown.  However, copies were made in medieval times and one of this copies is at the centre of this post.  At the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, you can now see a 10th century copy of Archimedes’ original writings.

An exhibition about the work begins with a fragment of ruined and charred manuscript.  Scholars have found that three centuries after the copies were originally made, Archimedes’ work was scraped away from the parchment so it could be re-used: in this case, to inscribe prayer.  When the original text on parchment or papyrus has been removed or scraped away, the new work is referred to as a Palimpsest.  The damp and crumpled New York Times article which I found and make much use of in this post, talks of the “ghost of a diagram, a spiral” still visible, in reddish ink, beneath the more contemporary inscriptions of prayer.  See here, the blue shows through because of the Ultra-Violet they use to see the original copy.



The photograph above gives a clearer indication of the original work, underneath the more recent book of prayer.

Astoundingly, this book of prayer is believed to have been used for centuries at the Monastery of St. Sabbas, a Greek Orthodox Monastery east of Bethlehem shown here in 1900 and again more recently.



In the next instant, in this account of the ancient parchment’s brief chronology, was its discovery by a biblical scholar in 1844, at the Metochion of the Holy Sepulcher in Istanbul.  This is the only image I can find of the Sepulchre but do imagine its travels and in whose possession it was moved.


Then in 1906, when a Danish scholar and expert on Archimedes called Johan Ludvig Heiburg, saw the book in Istanbul and recognised the treaties by Archimedes underneath the prayer.


It was only then that the full significance of this particular palimpsest was realised.  Here was the oldest sources of Archimedes’ writings and the Palimpsest was understood to contain documents, foundational to Western science.  The Greek communities in Istanbul suffered greatly during the First World War, and many of the artifacts in possession were lost or ruined.  But in 1932, the Palimpsest had turned up in Paris and was being offered for sale by a Jewish dealer called Salomon Guerson.  He recognised its importance but no buyer was found.  Guerson lived until 1970 and it was 28 years before his daughter was able to sell the work.

So it was in 1998, an anonymous buyer bought the Palimpsest for $2 million at a Christie’s auction.  It was then the role of William Noel, the Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum to convince the buyer to display the artifact at the museum where it was displayed between October 16th, 2011 until January 1st, 2012.


The buyer, in turn, agreed and continued to to fund the restoration and research into the book which enables us to see the whole picture today.

Rothstein, in the New York Times article I happened across, believed Archimedes “knew that the ideal world of straight lines and regular objects was only an approximation of of the real world’s curves and complexities“.  I relay all of this because I find this particular story, the geography and the centuries it encompasses, to my mind a thrilling prospect .  Consider Thomas Chatterton as a young man, searching the oaken chests in the muniment room of St Mary Redcliffe’s, Bristol, and finding forgotten documents some 300 years old.  So often are mystery and intrigue severed from our waking like, this story of the Palimpsest serves to reminds us of relics and artifacts.  Tablets of knowledge dating back to the worlds of antiquity might still be nestled in the dust and shadows of some obscure and far-flung architecture today.


Both quotes from Finding Archimedes in the Shadows.  Edward Rothstein.  The New York Times supplement. 30.10.2011.  

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