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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?

64 Comments

  1. a -  January 7, 2014 - 7:58 pm

    Svenjamin, SalManz – very likely the monks had no idea what the text on the parchment said or had no use for it, and so reused it for something they needed it for.

    Reply
  2. mike Boyd -  February 11, 2012 - 5:08 am

    Thank you, I have just learned something that I never knew.

    Reply
  3. Homepage -  December 8, 2011 - 1:40 pm

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  4. Babies -  October 26, 2011 - 10:31 pm

    I found a human within another human!

    Reply
  5. Gael -  October 26, 2011 - 11:25 am

    In answer to “Summertime in Japan on October 22, 2011 at 11:51 am”
    The Archamedies Palimsest was written on large pages that were turned 90 degrees, creased in the middle, and written on with a different kind of ink to create two smaller pages for a pocket-sized prayer book. The faint indentations and markings left from the original were separated with modern camera, lighting, and computer techniques.

    Reply
  6. Mystified_unt_Confuzed -  October 25, 2011 - 9:33 am

    Seriously?- ze interezt and shtudy (or reading unt conziderashion if you prefer) oaf hiztory yah? ( i.e. every zingle ting before ze prezent-vhezha ancient hischtory or more contemporary) iz not zo much unt endeavor to uneart zome mysteriouz arkane lost knowlitch of ze ancientz, (ze ancientz voult be shimply amazt by our knowlitch). Nine. It iz unt interizt unt ze prozess uf vhich ze presznt iz komprized.

    Knowing nawzing about hischtory iz zimilar to looking out ont ze oschun vit der perzeption limitet to only zhat vhich iz aboff ze vasah lien. Ve stant aboff ze vasah lien of hischtory. It iz interesint to have zome rough idea oaf vhat der every tought, noschun, idea unt vord ztands upon… at leascht I tink zo, yah?

    Reply
  7. Svenjamin -  October 24, 2011 - 1:54 pm

    Maybe in a way they did preserve history, even though their intention at the time was to destroy it.

    Reply
  8. Svenjamin -  October 24, 2011 - 1:52 pm

    It’s fascinating that the Christian church has always been praised as the keeper of history, come to find out they erased (or burned) that history which didn’t suit their needs and agenda, then proceeded to “document” history as they believed it to be rather than recording the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    Reply
  9. SalManz -  October 24, 2011 - 12:24 pm

    It’s interesting to see how nobody has made any mention on how the church tried to intervene with science once again… what the pope was trying to do is get rid of science and write something ‘holy’ (prayers) over it… I think it’s fascinating how current science can decipher what these palimpsests are hiding underneath.. I wish I could read more about them and the kind of things that were being ‘erased’ and the reasoning behind it. :)

    Reply
  10. preethijeevi -  October 24, 2011 - 12:01 am

    good info

    Reply
  11. blam! -  October 23, 2011 - 5:39 pm

    wow after reading this… I was hungry!!!!

    Reply
  12. Sue -  October 23, 2011 - 5:27 pm

    I have been a calligrapher for almost 30 years so I have known of palimpsests for a long time. How great to see that even now” the powers that be” are discovering more beneath the old manuscript writings, which help us learn more about those periods in history. It also sings the praises of working on such a ‘tough’ material as vellum, one certainly would find it very difficult to treat paper in the same way. Vellum has proved itself over the centuries. I would much rather have a piece of manuscript quality vellum than shoes, bag wallet etc made from the same material (eg mostly calfskin!).

    Reply
  13. Vanessa -  October 23, 2011 - 5:23 pm

    @Cayl and other people: Robert is speaking Croatian. He says: This is interesting! I wonder why they did it. (Use Google Translate.)

    @Jedná Se o Náhodný Název: Hahahahaha. Líbí se mi to. To je legrační. Nelze myslet na nic jiného říct.

    Anyway, this is pretty cool. I like the post.

    Reply
  14. quinn -  October 23, 2011 - 4:14 pm

    It’s amazing that they could even do that! Hopefully with technology like this we can discover even more about the culture and lifestyle of our ancestors! :)

    Reply
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