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Inside the Archimedes Palimpsest

  • By Lexi Krock
  • Posted 09.30.03
  • NOVA

In October 1998, a battered manuscript of parchment leaves sold for $2 million to an anonymous bidder at auction. The thousand-year-old manuscript contains the earliest surviving writings by Archimedes, the Greek thinker who is regarded as the greatest mathematician of antiquity. In this interactive, see how sophisticated technology uncovers Archimedes’ faded text and diagrams from beneath another Greek text that was written over it. Also, below, follow a time line that tells the fascinating story of the 174-page volume's journey from its creation in Constantinople to the auction block at Christie's in New York.

Launch Interactive

Follow the 1,000-year journey of an ancient document, and watch as modern technology makes the erased text reappear.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Infinite Secrets.

Chronology of the Archimedes Palimpsest

Circa 287-212 B.C.
Before his death at Syracuse in 212 B.C., Archimedes pens some of his most important treatises and equations onto a collection of papyrus scrolls in Greek. These include On the Method of Mechanical Theorems, On Floating Bodies, On the Measurement of the Circle, On the Sphere and the Cylinder, On Spiral Lines, and On the Equilibrium of Planes.

212 B.C.-A.D. 1000
The original Archimedes scrolls are lost, but fortunately unknown persons copy them down at least once beforehand onto other papyrus scrolls.

Circa 1000
A scribe working in Constantinople handwrites a copy of the Archimedes treatises, including their accompanying diagrams and calculations, onto parchment, which is assembled into a book.

Circa 1200
A Christian monk handwrites prayers in Greek over the Archimedes text, turning the old mathematical text into a new prayer book. The book is now a palimpsest, a manuscript with a layer of text written over an earlier scraped- or washed-off text (see Creating a Palimpsest).

Circa 1200-1906
For centuries the monk's prayer book is used in religious study, but eventually it is stored within the Mar Saba monastery in Constantinople. There it survives numerous abuses, including the Fourth Crusade in 1204, during which Constantinople is sacked and many of its books burned.

Danish philologist Johan Ludvig Heiberg discovers the lost manuscript in the library of The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Istanbul, identifies the underlying layer of text as the work of Archimedes, and photographs every page. Heiberg transcribes what he can make out of the palimpsest's shadowy bottom layer, using a magnifying glass as his only aid. He publishes his transcription with the accompanying images.

The palimpsest goes missing and is believed stolen. At some point during this period, probably after 1929, a forger paints copies of medieval evangelical portraits in gold leaf onto four pages in the book, presumably in an attempt to increase its value and perhaps unaware of the Archimedes text beneath.

Circa 1930
A member of a French family who is an amateur collector of antiques travels to Istanbul and purchases the manuscript from a local dealer. Unbeknownst to the outside world, it is kept in the family's Paris home for the next seven decades.

Nigel Wilson, a classics professor at Oxford, examines a leaf from an old manuscript housed in a Cambridge University library. He identifies it as a page from the missing Archimedes palimpsest Heiberg had photographed and transcribed 65 years earlier. Wilson surmises that Constantine Tischendorf, a German scholar who described a palimpsest he saw in a Greek monastic library in 1846, tore out the page for further examination.

The French owners of the Archimedes palimpsest confidentially approach an expert at Christie's in Paris to ask for an appraisal. After the appraiser discovers that the manuscript is the lost Archimedes palimpsest (in part by comparing it to Heiberg's photographs), he values it at between $800,000 and $1.2 million.

Not long after its sale for roughly double the appraised amount in the fall of 1998, the manuscript's anonymous billionaire owner loans it to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, where a team of restorers and scholars are cleaning, imaging, and translating the Archimedes palimpsest at last.



Taken by the Rochester Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, © Anonymous owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest

Related Links

  • Creating a Palimpsest

    See how medieval scribes made a palimpsest, a manuscript written on parchment that has another text written over it.

  • Approximating Pi

    The Greek mathematician Archimedes used a fairly simple geometrical approach to estimate pi. See how he did it.

  • Working With Infinity

    For mathematicians, using infinity is all in a day’s work, says Stanford scholar Reviel Netz in this interview.

  • Contemplating Infinity

    If you're not mathematically inclined, the concept can mess with your mind.


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