The Archimedes Palimpsest

Palimpsest is one of my favorite words. It refers to a text that has been written over, but is still somewhat legible beneath the newer text. This writing over creates this fascinating relationship between the original and the new text.

Often this happened in the medieval era because parchment, made from the skins of sheep or goats, was expensive. One goat would yield about 2 sheets of parchment, so you can see how this would quickly add up if you were making a book. This is the calculation that led to the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Archimedes was an ancient scholar–a brilliant mathematician on the order of Newton or Einstein. He is famous for starting entire branches of mathematics and physics. He was one of the first people to estimate the number pi, discovered the mechanics of levers and pulleys, discovered and proved formulas for the volume and surface areas of spheres, and more. He was an inventor and one of the first major physicists in the world. All in all, an important man who inspired works by Newton and Galileo, among others.

Not a person’s writings that few people today would be tempted to write a simple prayer book over…. but this seems to be a very simple economic decision for this scribe who did not see a market for high level mathematics, but did see such a market for prayer books.

So they scraped off much of the original text, cut the book in half, and turned it 90 degrees to create this prayer book. However, the original text is still visible underneath, sort of. Discovered in 1906, a rare Archimedes text has been hiding within this more common text, waiting to be deciphered by modern scholars.

The problem is, of course, it’s not just as simple as reading it. The pages aren’t in order, and they’ve been ravaged by mold and handling and light. So we have to turn to more modern imaging techniques in order to solve this problem.

Interested in learning more? Watch this great TED talk on the codex!

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