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An exciting new addition to ancient history? How one important book was uncovered from within another book.

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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    Reply
  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
  15. Bob -  October 23, 2011 - 3:51 pm

    Such ignorance of us in history but now more information is retrieving back.

    Reply
  16. voodooDAL -  October 23, 2011 - 3:41 pm

    It’s really awesome to know these significant facts from the past. Well, technology now is really doing a great job.

    Cheers,

    Reply
  17. Seriously? -  October 23, 2011 - 3:14 pm

    We’re “so advanced” and people are looking into ancient history to learn things. So, that doesn’t make us that advanced does it? Just sayin’. Lol.

    Reply
  18. Rachael -  October 23, 2011 - 2:21 pm

    Funny how complex the mind is, isn’t it? Even back then we were discovering new things every day.

    Reply
  19. sherryyu -  October 23, 2011 - 1:48 pm

    kool i want to decipher the books too and wat is robert talkinfg about

    Reply
  20. martin -  October 23, 2011 - 10:07 am

    to je means “it is”, pronounced kind of like tow yeh, he’s speaking some kind of a slavic language, my guess would be he’s from slovenia.

    Reply
  21. Malik -  October 23, 2011 - 9:37 am

    Interesting… NOT!

    Reply
  22. Sara -  October 23, 2011 - 9:20 am

    WHY DON’T PEOPLE RESPECT HISTORY:(

    Reply
  23. Stevie G -  October 22, 2011 - 11:55 pm

    Believe it or not, it was monks who preserved culture by preserving and transcribing the classics like Homer’s “the Iliad.” They also educated many young minds before there schools were prevalent. You people who like to disparage religious culture need to read your history.

    Reply
  24. Mystified_n_Confused -  October 22, 2011 - 10:42 pm

    T person- not just those who don’t know about history are doomed to relive it. The more familiar with history have no alternate escape plan either. But it’s not sad. Not if it last more than two weeks it isn’t. Then it qualifies as depression. See, you’re expected to enjoy this circus no matter who the elephants trample. Even more so when they do. It’s nothing personal. It’s just policy.

    The show must go on.

    Reply
  25. Katt -  October 22, 2011 - 8:35 pm

    Interesting………..

    Reply
  26. Lynn -  October 22, 2011 - 8:02 pm

    Thing is, One assumes that the scribes writing over the old text would be doing so because for some reason they felt the old text had less value than what was to be written over ti.

    Now, what if that were true, and we damaged the more important, albeit newer, text, in attempting to decipher the older text beneath?

    Age alone does not necessarily bestow value on something. If it did, I’d be rich and famous! *chuckle* And inanity and stupidity are at least as old as wisdom.

    Reply
  27. Phyllis K Twombly -  October 22, 2011 - 3:41 pm

    Just think what the ancients might have accomplished if they’d had access to ‘modern’ technology.

    Reply
  28. parvaneh -  October 22, 2011 - 3:14 pm

    We need these informations to understand more about our past.

    Reply
  29. Mystified_n_Confused -  October 22, 2011 - 3:00 pm

    That is mystifying and I’m confused… just like the article said. Wow!
    I wonder what kind of profoundly fantastical arcane knowledge is locked within the squiggly lines on that animal hide. Maybe Dan Brown knows.

    Reply
  30. Jedná Se o Náhodný Název -  October 22, 2011 - 2:56 pm

    To nemá nic společného s tímto blogem, já jsem jen vidět, jestli někdo bude dost chytří na to, aby otevřít Google Translator a přeložit to. :) Pokud ano, odpovězte mi v tomto jazyce! haha….;-)

    Reply
  31. this is a random name -  October 22, 2011 - 2:51 pm

    translate.google.com

    Reply
  32. Jedná Se o Náhodný Název -  October 22, 2011 - 2:50 pm

    To nemá nic společného s tímto blogem, já jsem jen vidět, jestli někdo bude dost chytří na to, aby otevřít Google Translator a přeložit to. :) Pokud ano, odpovězte mi v tomto jazyce! haha

    Reply
  33. Alež -  October 22, 2011 - 12:46 pm

    zelo zanimiv
    Imam ga rad

    Reply
  34. Ole TBoy -  October 22, 2011 - 12:07 pm

    It is scary to see how many contemporary Americans are pleased, metaphorically and in actuality, to wash away scientific facts and plaster them over with religiosity, in much the way accumulated learning was sacrificed to prayer books once Constantinople had had it books burned. Sadly, those who don’t know history are doomed to relive it.

    Reply
  35. Summertime in Japan -  October 22, 2011 - 11:51 am

    This is awesome information. How can they possibly read both of the texts? When you write a story on top of another one, a palimpsest, then how do you distinguished between both of the stories? Do they loan words from each other? Share particles? Simultaneously use the same honorific prefixes?

    Reply
  36. fishy -  October 22, 2011 - 10:59 am

    what does To Je mean?

    Reply
  37. Eli -  October 22, 2011 - 8:33 am

    What did the prayers say – “Oh God – teach us more about mathematics”?

    Reply
  38. Book Worm :) -  October 22, 2011 - 7:48 am

    Interesting….

    Reply
  39. Vikhaari -  October 22, 2011 - 7:47 am

    Great! And because of that unique material for writing of contemporary time, Archimedes’ theorem lives on.
    Eureka!

    Reply
  40. PALIMPSEST | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  October 22, 2011 - 7:29 am

    [...] Archimedes ‘Palimpsest’ with a Nod to B’More’s Walters, — Once again shows the conflict — Where [...]

    Reply
  41. JodyG -  October 22, 2011 - 6:53 am

    This is very, very interesting. The Walters Art Museum is 2 miles from my home and a wonderful place to spend an afternoon with the kids. I’ll have to stop by to check out the palimpsest while it is on display. If anyone else is in Baltimore, come out and support the zoo, aquarium, and the arts.

    Reply
  42. lefty2g -  October 22, 2011 - 6:42 am

    EUREKA…WE FOUND IT. your book.

    Reply
  43. David -  October 22, 2011 - 5:42 am

    There’s an awesome talk by one of the people who restored the text. It’s part of the O’Reilly Ignite series, so the presentation is only 5 minutes long.

    Restoring The Archimedes Palimpsest by Will Noel
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3IP_FmGams

    Reply
  44. Ionizer Air Purifier -  October 22, 2011 - 5:10 am

    Old books are the greatest. All good teachings are coming from those old times. Archimedes was one of the greatest and I hope after the text will be recovered, humans will have a great use of it.

    Reply
  45. Colin Gullen -  October 22, 2011 - 4:39 am

    Winston Churchill used the word PALIMPSEST to describe fooling the Germans with hundreds of dummy tanks and vehicles

    Reply
  46. Colin Gullen -  October 22, 2011 - 4:36 am

    Winston Churchill used the word PALIMPSEST to describe fooling the Germans with hundreds id dummy tanks and vehicles

    Reply
  47. Who -  October 22, 2011 - 2:26 am

    Very interesting story

    Reply
  48. Cyril -  October 22, 2011 - 1:16 am

    wow…It’s really amazing how the people of ancient age made thire record…It’s really great…

    Reply
  49. kewlkiwi -  October 21, 2011 - 11:30 pm

    Washed off? I’ve always believed they were scraped – and the parchment ended up a bit thinner each time it was done.
    On the other hand, some papyrus (i.e. early paper) palimpsests were washed – see https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Palimpsest

    Reply
  50. Deirdre -  October 21, 2011 - 11:02 pm

    It warmed my heart to read that an ancient text has been restored and deciphered thanks to diligence on the part of those researchers and modern technology. Hopefully, I will be able to make it out to Baltimore and see the palimpsest in person. I just wish that more texts like these will be deemed valuable and someone will devote time and resources to introduce anew the vast knowledge and wonders of the ancient world.

    Reply
  51. luis -  October 21, 2011 - 10:43 pm

    Wow, just imagine if the whole text were found!

    Reply
  52. Jack Cervantes -  October 21, 2011 - 8:24 pm

    Nothing like new discoveries!

    Reply
  53. jomar -  October 21, 2011 - 7:17 pm

    wow!

    Reply
  54. Amir -  October 21, 2011 - 7:03 pm

    Intresting information…..I would wan to see one of them deciphered too. :)

    Reply
  55. Cayl -  October 21, 2011 - 5:38 pm

    @Bob Ist Archimedes Deutsch?
    @ Robert What language is that?

    Reply
  56. Arthur -  October 21, 2011 - 5:23 pm

    Awww, I thought Archimedes was Merlin’s owl…

    Reply
  57. Malik -  October 21, 2011 - 4:57 pm

    Uh….. what is this?

    Reply
  58. Tobias Mook -  October 21, 2011 - 4:32 pm

    Cool! I wonder how they got away with doing these tests…

    Reply
  59. Robert -  October 21, 2011 - 1:46 pm

    To je zanimljivo! Pitam se zašto oni to učinio?

    Reply
  60. kate narag -  October 21, 2011 - 1:40 pm

    it’s very interesting knowing that there are still copies of ancient palimpsests until now and was able to go through years.. i’m hoping to see one and decipher those messages:)

    Reply
  61. ßöb -  October 21, 2011 - 1:31 pm

    Das ist interessant! Ich frage mich, warum sie noch nicht entdeckt hatte es.

    Reply

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