Archimedes Palimpsest Coming to the Walters

From a Walters Museum press release:

In 1999, the Walters Art Museum and a team of researchers began a project to read the erased texts of The Archimedes Palimpsest—the oldest surviving copy of works by the greatest mathematical genius of antiquity. Over 12 years, many techniques were employed by over 80 scientists and scholars in the fields of conservation, imaging and classical studies. The exhibition Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes will tell the story of The Archimedes Palimpsest’s journey and the discovery of new scientific, philosophical and political texts from the ancient world. This medieval manuscript demonstrates that Archimedes discovered the mathematics of infinity, mathematical physics and combinatorics—a branch of mathematics used in modern computing. This exhibition will be on view at the Walters from Oct. 16, 2011-Jan. 1, 2012.

Archimedes lived in the Greek city of Syracuse in the third century B.C. He was a brilliant mathematician, physicist, inventor, engineer and astronomer. In 10th-century Constantinople (present day Istanbul), an anonymous scribe copied the Archimedes treatise in the original Greek onto parchment. In the 13th century, a monk erased the Archimedes text, cut the pages along the center fold, rotated the leaves 90 degrees and folded them in half. The parchment was then recycled, together with the parchment of other books, to create a Greek Orthodox prayer book. This process is called palimpsesting; the result of the process is a palimpsest.

On Oct. 28, 1998, The Archimedes Palimpsest was purchased at Christie’s by an anonymous collector for two million dollars. It is considered by many to be the most important scientific manuscript ever sold at auction because it contains Archimedes’ erased texts.

“The collector deposited the Palimpsest at the Walters for conservation, imaging, study and exhibition in 1999, but many thought that nothing more could be recovered from this book. It was in horrible condition, having suffered a thousand years of weather, travel and abuse,” said Archimedes Project Director and Walters Curator of Manuscripts and Rare Books Will Noel. “Detailed detective work and the serendipitous discovery of important documents and photographs allowed us to reconstruct what happened to the Palimpsest in the 20th century, when it was subject to appalling treatment and overpainted with forgeries. A team of devoted scholars using the latest imaging technology was able to reveal and decipher the original text.”

Before imaging could begin, the manuscript had to be stabilized. Conserving the manuscript took 12 years, including four years just to take the book apart due to the fragile nature of parchment damaged by mold and a spine covered in modern synthetic glue.

“I documented everything and saved all of the tiny pieces from the book, including paint chips, parchment fragments and thread, and put them into sleeves so we knew what pages they came from,” said Abigail Quandt, Walters senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books. “I stabilized the flaking ink on the parchment using a gelatin solution, made innumerable repairs with Japanese paper and reattached separated folios.”

In 2000, a team began recovering the erased texts. They used imaging techniques that rely on the processing of different wavelengths of infrared, visible and ultraviolet light in a technique called multispectral imaging. By employing different processing techniques, including Principal Components Analysis, text was exposed that had not been seen in a thousand years.

By 2004, about 80% of the manuscript had been imaged. The most difficult pages left were covered with a layer of grime or 20th-century painted forgeries. These leaves were brought to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL), one of the most advanced light laboratories in the world, where a tiny but powerful x-ray beam scanned the leaves. The x-rays detected and recorded where beams bounced off iron atoms, and since the ink of the Palimpsest’s under text is written with iron, the writing on the page could be mapped. This enabled scholars to read large sections of previously hidden text. […]

The press release goes on, but what is really nice is that the fine folks at the Walters have put up a pile of videos about the palimpsest and all the activity around it …

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