What Lies Beneath
October 29, 2008 3:41 PM   Subscribe

In the 13th century, thrifty monastic scribes erased an old Archimedes manuscript they had lying around and reused it. Thankfully, they didn't do a very thorough job. Ten years ago today, an anonymous American collector purchased the Archimedes Palimpsest, and has since funded the project to conserve, image, and study the manuscript, which contains several otherwise unknown works. Today, the Archimedes Palimpsest Project has released all its data and images under a Creative Commons license.
posted by Horace Rumpole (22 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Fantastic. You wonder how many of these are sat unrecognised in the libraries of the world.
posted by pharm at 3:53 PM on October 29, 2008


Great post, Horace.
posted by SaintCynr at 3:56 PM on October 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

This is really awesome.
posted by Science! at 4:03 PM on October 29, 2008

I think I am seeing the plot of the next Dan Brown novel. Of course he won't have to worry about getting sued this time, since it has a CC license.

Actually reminds me of a scene in the Arturo Pérez-Reverte book, "The Club Dumas." In this, antiquarian book collectors found more value in the papers used to stiffen the spine of a book, than in that particular book. Often older books, headed to the recycle bin, were used to make the spines of new books, so a copy of some trash book might contain pieces of a much more sought after book. No idea if this is factual.
posted by cjorgensen at 4:13 PM on October 29, 2008

Disclosure: Never read Dan Brown or seen any movies made from his books. Did hear an NPR program about him being sued.
posted by cjorgensen at 4:14 PM on October 29, 2008

FYI, the images aren't CC: "All images are copyright of the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest. They cannot be reproduced without permission. You can apply for permission by writing to wnoel@thewalters.org."
posted by goatdog at 4:14 PM on October 29, 2008

No idea if this is factual.

As anecdotal evidence, my 19th century surgical manuals have spines made of used ledger paper.
posted by The White Hat at 4:21 PM on October 29, 2008

It reads, "Here may be found the last words of Joseph of Aramathia. He who is valiant and pure of spirit may find the holy grail in the Castle of Aaauuuggghhh...”
posted by Astro Zombie at 4:22 PM on October 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

How quaint, the website design is also is also from somewhere in the 1990s.

In truth, a very keen endeavor. It's nice that people with gobs of money don't think that such items of value are only to be seen by the highest bidder.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:34 PM on October 29, 2008

This was the subject of a Nova episode a while back.
posted by milkrate at 4:42 PM on October 29, 2008

goatdog, I saw that copyright notice on the front page, but it does say "unless explicitly stated otherwise." The ReadMe for the dataset gives the CC license and seems pretty clearly to include the images as well.

cjorgensen, it definitely is true that very important things have been found that way (the technical term is "binder's waste"), including some of Gutenberg's earliest work.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 4:43 PM on October 29, 2008

I'm not sure why you'd want to dig up old copies of the Police Academy script - Guttenberg wasn't all that great. Oh, Gutenberg with one T. Right.
posted by filthy light thief at 4:54 PM on October 29, 2008

This is my favorite kind of website; it doesn't try to get in your face but there's a ton of content there. I've been reading through the archiving and digitization process and looking at the videos for a while now and I'm only about halfway through. (Some of the videos are a bit amateurish, but it's cool that they have them at all. I wonder if they can twist PBS's arm and get permission to release the Nova segment.)

I'd love to know more about the history of the palimpsest; where it came from before it showed up on Christie's block. It also makes me wonder what's become of all the other volumes that were supposedly in the same monastery (well into the late 19th and early 20th century). There's no way to know how many things like this might be floating around.

Also: the library that the palimpsest was stored at for most of its lifetime was probably very humble compared to the Vatican's collection in Rome; makes you wonder what they must have squirreled away. (As long as they're keeping them safe I don't fault them for what they have in the slightest; better forgotten in the Vatican Archives than lost forever. However, I do hope that successful imaging of the Archimedes Palimpsest will inspire other libraries and archives to work more actively to make their collections accessible.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:48 PM on October 29, 2008

I'd love to know more about the history of the palimpsest; where it came from before it showed up on Christie's block.
Your wish is my command.
Tischendorf, of course, did not know that the palimpsest contained the writings of Archimedes, and neither did Papadopoulos-Kerameus in 1899. However, Papadopoulos-Kerameus did transcribe a few lines of the under text. These were called to the attention of John Ludwig Heiberg, who was the world's authority on Archimedes. Intrigued by the under text, Heiberg visited the Metochion in 1906, and discovered the truth, that this book contained the unique source for The Method, The Stomachion, and On Floating Bodies in Greek.
posted by shii at 6:24 PM on October 29, 2008

I read that page; there's still a fairly long gap between when Heiberg saw it (and took photos) in the Metochion in '06, and when it turned up for auction, less a few pages, plus some forged illustrations and a lot of mold, in '99.

Basically, it's this part that intrigues me and makes me wonder:
It is not known how the Palimpsest left the Metochion after Heiberg last studied it in 1908. It was auctioned at Christie’s in New York on the 28th October 1998, and advertised as from a private French collection. The day before the sale the Greek Government and the Greek patriarch issued an injunction against Christie’s in an attempt to stop the sale. They argued that the book was stolen. The injunction failed, and the sale wet ahead. The court records of the injunction and subsequent proceedings make it clear that the manuscript had been in the French collection at least since the 1960’s, and the family claimed that it had in fact, belonged to them since the 1920’s. Be that as it may, the book has suffered greatly since the time when Heiberg saw it.
That seems like a fairly interesting story in itself, if anyone could ever figure out how it really made its way from a monastery in Greece (where it was apparently well-known or at least studied occasionally) to being intentionally vandalized, and then finally auctioned off.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:53 PM on October 29, 2008

When I was an undergrad, I was lucky enough to take a course on Greek math from Reviel Netz. We read several classic works in the original, but the highlight of the course for me was when he gave us each a poster with images from this Palimpsest.

In the false color images you can just make out the greek underneath; "kuklou" ("of the circle") was the first word I could see. Just stunning, really. We spent a week in class trying to make out the meaning of our pages; even with the imaging, words can be obscured or partially missing. Anyhow it made quite an impression on me; that poster is the only thing up in my office now.

Now, putting on my physicist hat, this project is one of the answers to what happens to old particle accelerators: imaging was done at the synchrotron at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (better known from physicist directions for discovering the tau lepton and the Psi meson).

I'm not sure how I'll put the classics hat back on while wearing the physicist one, but I've got to say, this is pretty much the most awesome project ever. With plenty of bonus- one of the texts that had been largely lost was the Method, which contains some limiting procedures that contain proto-calculus concepts.

Anyhow I finished undergrad in '03; as soon as I get back to my office, I'm going to check for the updated images on the pages I have. Maybe those words will be easier to read now! (Thanks for the post! This just makes me grin all over, no matter how many hats I'm wearing.)
posted by nat at 8:16 PM on October 29, 2008 [4 favorites]

Brilliant. Thanks, Horace.
posted by homunculus at 9:09 PM on October 29, 2008

Horace! Yes!
posted by humannaire at 9:35 PM on October 29, 2008

This is awesome. I kind of wish I could find other books by turning my currently books 90degrees. It would save me a lot of money! With which I could buy MORE books!
posted by grapefruitmoon at 8:36 AM on October 30, 2008

Good to know that it's in CC now.
posted by ersatz at 9:48 AM on October 30, 2008

'Digital dark age' may doom some data

Hopefully the Palimpsest won't be lost yet again.
posted by homunculus at 12:54 PM on October 30, 2008

Often older books, headed to the recycle bin, were used to make the spines of new books, so a copy of some trash book might contain pieces of a much more sought after book. No idea if this is factual.

I've seen interesting looking filler in the spines of elderly books- not manuscript, but clearly renaissance. Lot of rubbish printed in the renaissance, of course. No idea if they were worth tearing up the binding for (I really have to doubt it), but as a plot device, it ain't bad.

Check out PBS for a little more on the 20th century history
posted by IndigoJones at 6:00 PM on October 30, 2008

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