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The Archimedes Palimpsest is a medieval parchment manuscript, now consisting of 174 parchment folios. While it contains no less than seven treatises by Archimedes, calling it the Archimedes Palimpsest is a little confusing. As it is now, the manuscript is a Byzantine prayerbook, written in Greek, and technically called a euchologion. This euchologion was completed by April 1229, and was probably made in Jerusalem. In this short video clip Abigail Quandt, Senior Conservator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at The Walters Art Museum, turns some pages of the book. It might surprise some people that Abigail is not wearing gloves. Actually it makes conservation sense. Her clean hands do no damage to the parchment and she can be more sensitive to the fragile folios if she is not wearing anything on them.
The prayer book, or Euchologion, is itself of some interest, and further information on its contents can be discovered in this website. However, to make their prayer book, the scribes used parchment that had already been used for the writings of other books. The books they took parchment from were as follows.
Firstly, and most importantly, they used a book containing at least seven treatises by Archimedes. These treatises are the Equilibrium of Planes, Spiral Lines, The Measurement of the Circle, Sphere and Cylinder, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion. Of these treatises, the last three are of the greatest significance of our understanding of Archimedes. While the other treatises had survived through other manuscripts, there is no other surviving copy of On Floating Bodies in Greek — the language in which Archimedes wrote, and there is no version in any language of The Method of Mechanical Theorems and of this part of the Stomachion. The Archimedes manuscript was used for the majority of the pages of the prayer book. The Archimedes manuscript was written in the second half of the tenth century, almost certainly in Constantinople.
Another book they used, we now know, contained works by the 4th century B.C. Attic Orator Hyperides. Prior to the discovery of the Hyperides text in the manuscript, this orator was only known from papyrus fragments and from quotations of his work by other authors. The Palimpsest, however, contains 10 pages of Hyperides text.
Yet further books were used to make up the Palimpsest. Six folios come fron a Neoplatonic philosophical text that has yet to be identified; four folios come from a liturgical book, and twelve further pages come from two different books, the text of which has yet to be deciphered.
How does one make one book out of five? The answer is by palimpsesting them. The word Palimpsest comes from the Greek Palimpsestos, meaning “scraped again”. Medieval manuscripts were made of parchment, especially prepared and scraped animal skin. Unlike paper, parchment is sufficiently durable that you can take a knife to it, and scrape off the text, and over write it with a new text. In this case, five books were taken apart, the text was scraped off the leaves, which were then stacked in a pile, ready for reuse.
Medieval manuscripts are constructed like a whole series of newspaper. So each leaf has its conjoint, just as the front page of a news paper is attached to the back page. One should therefore imagine the leaves of the 5 manuscripts as double-sheets, lying in a pile, without any text. To make the prayer book, these leaves were split down the middle, rotated ninety degrees, and than refolded to make further double sheets that were half the size. The scribes then added their prayer book text, which is at ninety degrees to the now almost indecipherable erased writings.
What you see when you open the Archimedes palimpsest therefore, is not a mathematical text, or even a piece of Greek oratory, but a prayer book. Only occasionally can one just discern, at right angles to the prayer book text, the erased writings that the current project is attempting to recover.
The History of the Archimedes Manuscript.
Paleography, or the study of ancient texts, can allow us to approximately date when manuscripts were written. The Archimedes manuscript was probably written in the second half of the tenth century. It was almost certainly written at Constantinople, for the simple reason that there is no other place that we know of where ancient mathematics was systematically studied and copied. Constantinople was the one place with a continued tradition of copying and preserving ancient texts from antiquity through the Middle Ages.
Specifically, the study of Archimedes texts can be associated with the work of Leo the Geometer. Leo the Geometer was the cousin of John VII Morocharzianus, who was Patriarch in Constantinople between 837 and 843. In the 820�s, Leo was giving private instruction in Constantinople. Evidently he was successful at inspiring his students: one of them, who had read Euclid under his supervision, was captured by the Arabs in 830. His report of Leo�s learning was sufficient to cause the Caliph to invite Leo to Baghdad. He did not go. Instead he took up the charge of the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus (829-842) to educate the public in the church of the Forty Martyrs in Constantinople. Leo was clearly something of a polymath, and a practical one at that. While in Theophilus�s service, he built fire stations between the City and the border of the Empire. Should there be an emergency on the border north of Tarsus, a message could reach the Capital in less than an hour. In the Late 850�s the assistant Emperor, Bardas, founded a school in the Imperial Palace, under Leo�s direction. Other professors were appointed too: Cometas, a literary scholar, Theodegius, an astronomer, and, perhaps most significantly for us Theodore, a geometer. We know few of the details of Leo�s school, but we can assume that it was a center of learning. Two surviving manuscripts containing texts by Archimedes contain inscriptions praising Leo the Geometer. It seems highly likely that it was as a result of his work that manuscripts of Archimedes were copied in this period.
The ninth and tenth centuries were glorious centuries for the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople was immensely wealthy, and physically secure. The imperial palace was a center of culture, and its monasteries flourished.
This is the climate in which it is easiest to see the Archimedes manuscript being copied. However, the long period of prosperity ended abruptly in 1204. In this year, the Fourth Crusade, sanctioned by Pope Innocent III, set out for the Holy Land. However, they stopped short of their goal, and sacked Constantinople. Constantinople was the richest City in Europe, and for over 700 years it had been a safe haven for ancient texts.
But the years after the sack of Constantinople were not years in which there was a great need for the advanced mathematical treatises of Archimedes, or the Ancient speeches of Hyperides. It was probably in the aftermath of this event that these texts were palimpsested. In 2002, Professor John Lowden of the Courtauld Institute, using Ultra-violet light, managed to decipher a colophon, on the bottom of folio 1 verso of the manuscript, which contains the date of April 13, 1229.
The manuscript survived as a prayer book from that day until it was catalogued by Papadopoulos-Kerameus.
In 1899 this scholar produced a catalogue of the manuscripts which belonged to the Greek patriarch in Jerusalem, but which were housed at the Metochion — or daughter house — of the Holy Sepulcher, in Constantinople. The book is Ms. 355 in this catalogue. One detail that Papadopoulos records, and which no longer survives, is that the book contained a sixteenth century inscription saying that it belonged to the monastery of St Sabas.
Traditionally founded in 483 by St. Sabas, this monastery was an intellectual and spiritual center in the Holy Land at an early date. It is situated a few miles directly east of Bethlehem on the West Bank. The community at Mar Saba had a well organized scriptorium for writing books, some of them lavishly illuminated, at least into the twelfth century, and in 1834 there were more than 1000 manuscripts in the Library. The monastery is spectacular, and looks as much like a fortress as a house of God, a necessity in the troubled times that the community has faced through the centuries. A most striking account of the monastery is given by the Rev. George Croly, who, accompanied by the artist David Roberts of the Royal Academy, arrived at the Monastery of St. Saba on April 4, 1839. Croly records, “The immediate approach to the convent is striking….It was night when after having descended into the bed of a ravine, where the Kidron passes to the Dead Sea, and arriving at the foot of the Mountain of St. Saba, we saw the convent above us, by the uncertain light of the moon. It looked a lofty and colossal structure, rising in stories and terraces, one above another, against the sides of the mountain to its summit, and there crowned with clouds. An old white-bearded monk, leaning on his staff, was toiling up the side of the hill leading a long procession of devotees. Below, apparently growing out of the rock, was a large palm tree said to have been planted by the hands of the Saint in the fourth century. History, and probably legend, contributed its share to the effect. In a chapel behind an iron grating in one of the grottos was a pile of skulls. The tradition of the convent said they were those of hermits who, to the amount of several thousand, had been slaughtered by the Osmanlis. We ascended the flight of steps, climbed up a ladder, crept through a small door only large enough to admit one at a time, and found ourselves in an antechamber, surrounded by above a hundred Greek pilgrims….It was Passion Week. The monks receive strangers with courtesy, and they not merely permitted the artist to sketch their chapel, but as their service was beginning before he had finished his design, they would not suffer him to lay aside his pencil.”
We do not know how the Palimpsest got to St Sabas, but it is clear that it was there in the sixteenth century. It is also clear that it had moved again by about 1840, and was in the Metochion by that time. The Biblical scholar Constantine Tischendorf visited the Metochion in the early 1840�s and wrote an account of his travels entitled “Travels in the East” in 1846. He says that he visited the Metochion, but found nothing of particular interest except for a palimpsest containing some mathematics. Clearly Tischendorf found this book very interesting, as one leaf from the Archimedes Palimpsest was sold to Cambridge University Library in 1879 from his estate.
(left) It is now C.U.L. Ms. Add. 1879.23. It was only identified as coming from the Archimedes Palimpsest by Nigel Wilson in 1968.
Tischendorf, of course, did not know that the palimpsest contained the writings of Archimedes, and neither did Papadopoulos Kerameus in 1899. However, Papadopoulos-Kerameus did transcribe a few lines of the under text. These were called to the attention of John Ludwig Heiberg, who was the world�s authority on Archimedes. Intrigued by the under text, Heiberg visited the Metochion in 1906, and discovered the truth, that this book contained the unique source for The Method, The Stomachion, and On Floating Bodies in Greek.
Heiberg took photographs of the manuscript (right), and used these extensively for his work on the book. Heiberg incorporated his findings into an entirely new edition of the complete works of Archimedes, which he published between 1910 and 1915.
It is not known how the Palimpsest left the Metochion after Heiberg last studied it in 1908. It was auctioned at Christie�s in New York on the 28th October 1998, and advertised as from a private French collection. The day before the sale the Greek Government and the Greek patriarch issued an injunction against Christie�s in an attempt to stop the sale. They argued that the book was stolen. The injunction failed, and the sale wet ahead. The court records of the injunction and subsequent proceedings make it clear that the manuscript had been in the French collection at least since the 1960�s, and the family claimed that it had in fact, belonged to them since the 1920�s. Be that as it may, the book has suffered greatly since the time when Heiberg saw it. The damage comes in three main forms.
Firstly, some pages are missing. The most important are three missing pages that once contained Archimedes text. We know that they were there in 1908 as Heiberg transcribed them, and even took a photograph of one of them. They are simply not there now.
Secondly, the book has suffered very severely from mold. Medieval manuscripts tend to be strong. They are made of the same raw materials as leather shoes. Fire and damp can damage them however, and this book has been very severely attacked by mold, as comparison between images that Heiberg took and pictures of the same pages now reveal. It is very often the case that whole areas of text are now missing.
Finally, and most extraordinarily, four paintings of the Evangelists have been added to the book, over the top of the prayer book text, and therefore over the top of the under texts beneath that. These images were clearly taken after 1929, as John Lowden has shown that they were copied from a publication of that year entitled Manuscrits Grecs de la Bibliotheque Nationale.
The manuscript was bought at auction by an anonymous American collector who deposited the book at The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, for conservation, imaging, and scholarly study, in January 1999. Work on the Palimpsest, funded by the owner, has been ongoing ever since.
When Natalie Tchernetska, one of the scholars on the project, came to consult with Abigail Quandt, Senior Conservator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at The Walters Art Museum, in early 2000, it was clear that working on this book was going to be an uphill struggle.