Issue 14, April 2010
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The Archimedes Palimpsest
William Noel’s interview to Leda Bouzali
On January 9th, 1999, Dr William Noel, Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum, welcomed in his office Mr.B , whom he had never met before. By the end of the visit and their lunch, a small blue briefcase containing a box was standing on Dr Noel’s desk. The words Archimedes Palimpsest were written in golden letters on its back. The box contained a very fragile old book , a manuscript of extraordinary importance to the history of science, that includes two among other texts two treatises by Archimedes that can be found nowhere else, the Method and the Stomachion (or Ostomachion), as well as the great mathematicians’ famous Peri Ochoumenon.

It took ten years to conclude the conservation of the Palimpsest and the reading of the ancient texts by Archimedes and Hyperides, which had been erased and over written. Dr. Noel talked to ΑΩ magazine about this fascinating project, which ultimately involved a 60 member scientific team.
In his interview, he refused to disclose the name of Mr.B, the wealthy American who bought the Palimpsest at a Christie’s auction in New York on October 29th, 1998, for the astronomical figure of two million dollars. “Secrets when revealed are often not as exciting as we may believe”, he explained. Dr. Noel went on to explain the huge importance of this codex and the high technology that was used for its conservation and imaging.

Archimedes was born in the city of Syracuse on the island of Sicily in 287 B.C..  The famous mathematician’s original texts were copied on parchment in the second half of the 10th century by an unknown scriber. Three centuries later, Ioannis Myron, a Christian Orthodox monk in Jerusalem, “recycled” the parchment by palimpsesting it, scraping off the text and cutting the parchment in half. In order to make his own book, Myron also used palimpested pages from the work of Hyperides, an Attic orator of the 4th century B.C. , as well as other pieces of parchment. Myron’s parchment became then part of a prayer book.

The Biblical scholar Constantine von Tischendorf visited the Monastery of St. Saba, east
Of Bethlehem on the West Bank and wrote an account of his travels. He says he visited the monastery, but found nothing of particular interest except for a palimpsest containing some mathematics. Neither Tischendorf nor Papadopoulos-Kerameus, who included the codex in a catalogue in 1899, realized they were dealing with Archimedes’ work. A few lines of the under text transcribed by Papadopoulos-Kerameus were called to the attention of John Ludwig Heiberg, who was the world’s authority on Archimedes. Intrigued by the under text, Heiberg visited in 1906 the Metochion of the Holy Grave in Constantinople where the manuscripts of the Monastery of St. Saba had been transported and discovered the truth: the codex includes the one and only known Greek version of Archimedes’ work Peri Ohoumenon, as well as the only copies of Περί τῶν µηχανικῶν θεωρηµάτων πρός Ἐρατοσθένην ἔφοδος –widely known as  the Method-, Ostomachion or Stomachion (from the words ostoun (=bone) and mahi (=battle); a  popular game in antiquity that resembles tangram. Players used 14 geometric forms, the bones or osta and tried to form various figures). The codex also includes Κύκλου Μέτρησις, Περὶ ἑλίκων, Περὶ σφαίρας καὶ κυλίνδρου, [Περὶ] Ἐπιπέδων ἰσορροπιῶν.

The traces of the Palimpsest are lost during World War I. Forgerers add drawings over the top of the texts willing to make the book more “valuable”, thus contributing to the damage of the undertexts. The codex ends up to a French family which ultimately makes it available for auction in New York. The day before the sale the Greek government and the Patriarchate issue an injunction against Christie’s in an attempt to stop the sale. They argue that the book was stolen. The injunction fails and the sale goes ahead. The Greek Ministry of Culture participates with a biding but the price is too high and the codex is bought by the anonymous American collector. He deposits the book at the Walters Art Museum for conservation, imaging and scholarly study.

A combination of techniques has been used for the reading of the text, explains Dr. Noel, such as multispectral imaging. It is a digital imaging method often used in ancient manuscripts. Numerous photographs of an area are taken at different wavelengths of light, from ultraviolet through infrared, resulting in a digital “stack” of images. Algorithms (recipes if you like) are then written in order to enhance particular characteristics of the images area –the under text in the case of the Palimpsest. This method proved efficient for most pages. However, it was of very little use in reading the text underneath the forged pages, so another technique, the X-ray Fluorescence Imaging, had to be applied. By examining matter on a molecular and atomic level, fluorescent X-rays can disclose which chemical elements are present on each page. The ink used on the Palimpsest had a large concentration of iron, so it was possible to create “element maps” of individual pages of the book. Thanks to the fluorescent X-rays words written with iron rich ink came out strongly and after being processed on a computer they could be read by the scientists. 

More techniques were used, explains Dr. Noel, but final results were poor. Optical character recognition was applied among others, based on the fact that a computer can “guess” missing characters and parts of text that have been largely obliterated. This method proved helpful up to a certain point.

The Archimedes Palimpsest included a lot of important diagrams, which were studied for the first time. Since Hiberg was not a mathematician he did not comment on them or publish them, as he was only interested in text. But these diagrams are much more than mere illustrations. They are crucial to our understanding of Archimedes’ scientific personality and they bring us closest to his mind. In Greek mathematics diagrams serve as a crucial part of the logic of an argument. By drawing his diagrams on the sand in Syracuse Archimedes conceived his theorems and their evidence.

Archimedes’ texts reading proved easier than that of the rest of the texts which were found in the palimpsest parchments used by Myron. Most important are two texts by the orator Hyperides: the first, Against Timandros  is a speech in prosecution of a man in a dispute over an inheritance; it is of particular interest to those who study ancient family law. The second, Against Diondas, is an important political speech in which Hyperides defends his proposal to honor the rhetor Demosthenes prior to the battle of Chaeronea.

Today Archimedes’ Palimpsest is kept in a special vault –each folio in a separate case– at a temperature of 70 degrees Farenheit and 50% humidity, at the Walters Art Museum. A public exhibition is planned for the fall of 2011, which may also be brought to Europe. But, as Dr. Noel explains, one does not have to travel to Baltimore to study the Palimpsest. On October 29th 2008, ten years after its acquisition by its current owner, the Codex with all of its texts has been uploaded on the Internet and is readily available to all interested parties on the website

Note: Dr. William Noel gave a lecture on The Archimedes’ Palimpsest on October 7th, 2009 at the affiliate Onassis Foundation in New York.

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