After years of research, the Archimedes’ Palimpsest is now on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. Like anything more than a thousand years old, it has an intriguing story to tell. But what’s a palimpsest? This confusing word has a very particular definition. A palimpsest is a text written on parchment, vellum or sometimes papyrus that is covered over by another text. The word palimpsest comes from the Ancient Greek word meaning “to scrape again.”Why did scribes write on top of other writing? Hundreds of years ago, parchment was rare and expensive. The word parchment is often used synonymously with paper, but in fact it is a very different material. Parchment is made from animal hides and lasts a long time. In order to save money, irrelevant texts were washed off of parchments, so that the parchments could be reused. (Of course, this all changed with the advent and spread of print in the early 1400s. Learn about one of the earliest printed books, the Nuremberg Chronicle here.)
The original text of this particular palimpsest was a collection of geometric theories written by the ancient mathematician, Archimedes, who may be best known for screaming “Eureka!” He was also the first scientist to accurately estimate the value of pi and theorize that it was an irrational number. The Archimedes’ Palimpsest was likely copied in Constantinople around 900 when a large school of math and science flourished in the ancient Byzantine capital. However, after the sack of Constantinople in 1204, many books were burned, and the age of learning came to an abrupt end. What had been a book of math theorems was washed; the pages were cut in half and then refolded to make a smaller book. On the smaller pages, prayers were written for monks to use.
Parts of the Archimedes’ Palimpsest, like “The Method of Mechanical Theorems,” are new to history. Without the recovery and deciphering of this text, they would otherwise be completely lost to time. Researchers used technology like ultraviolet light and complex x-rays to read the original text.
Other manuscripts, like the Voynich Manuscript, have also mystified us and confused. What do you think of ancient palimpsests?