Huntington Exhibition Will Show How an Ancient Archimedes Text Was Discovered

SAN MARINO, Calif.—The oldest surviving copy of treatises by the great classical mathematician Archimedes will be on view at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in an exhibition that will document how the text was discovered and how new technology was employed to make it legible. The exhibition, “Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” will be on view in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery from March 15 to June 8, 2014.

Known as the Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript first went on view in 2011 in an exhibition created by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, whose staff oversaw conservation and research on the text for 12 years before presenting it to the public. The text was purchased in 1998 at auction by an anonymous collector and subsequently loaned to the Walters for conservation, imaging, and transcription.

On view in the exhibition will be 20 leaves from the palimpsest, other manuscripts from the Walters Art Museum, and related objects from The Huntington’s history of science collection and from UCLA that help contextualize the palimpsest. Multimedia displays and other material will round out the exhibition, showing the range of conservation and imaging techniques used during the 12-year-long process of discovery.

The Huntington is the only other venue to host the complete exhibition. “We are delighted to be able to show this rare object and to walk visitors through the meticulous process researchers went through to reveal some of Archimedes’ great works, two of which were hitherto unknown,” said David Zeidberg, the director of the library at The Huntington.

Archimedes lived in the Greek city of Syracuse in the third century B.C. He was a mathematician, physicist, inventor, engineer, and astronomer and is considered today to be among the world’s greatest classical thinkers.

In 10th-century Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), an anonymous scribe copied Archimedes’ mathematical treatises in the original Greek onto parchment. Three hundred years later, a Greek Orthodox monk literally recycled the document to use the parchment for another purpose: he erased the Archimedes text, cut the pages along the center fold, rotated the leaves 90 degrees, and folded them in half. The pages were then bound with other erased manuscript leaves to create a prayer book. This recycled book is known as a palimpsest—referring to a piece of writing that has been erased or scraped off to make room for other writing; “palimpsesting” was commonplace hundreds of years ago when parchment and paper were hard to come by.

Over the hundreds of years that followed, successive owners held onto the prayer book, not knowing of the Archimedes underwriting until the late 1800s. It was at that time that Archimedes scholar Johan Ludvig Heiberg saw the book in Istanbul and recognized seven treatises by Archimedes underneath the prayers; he had discovered the oldest surviving source for Archimedes’ writings. He transcribed as much of the text as was possible, and he took photographs, which turned out to be crucial to the ultimate discovery of the significance of the book.

But little is known about what happened to the palimpsest during the 20th century; after Heiberg’s discoveries, it disappeared for decades. What is known is that over these “lost years” some of the pages went missing, mold set in, and illustrations of the Evangelists, forged to look medieval, had been painted on some of the pages. There is some suggestion that a book dealer may have added the illustrations to make the palimpsest more marketable. Eventually, the book, comprising 174 folios, was put up for auction and sold in 1998.

A Painstaking Process

During the 12 years the Walters Art Museum worked on the text, some 80 scientists and scholars in the fields of conservation, imaging, and classical studies engaged in the painstaking process of discovery.

“It was in horrible condition, having suffered a thousand years of weather, travel, and abuse,” said Will Noel, Archimedes Project Director and then curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum, in a 2011 news release. The text was filthy; it had been singed by fire and and dripped on with wax. In fact, before imaging could begin, the manuscript had to be stabilized. It took four years alone simply to disassemble and remove adhesive from the folds, given its fragility. 

“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, the Walters Art Museum’s senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books. 

Once stabilized, the book went through a series of high-tech imaging processes to coax out the ancient text and diagrams. Teams of scientists combined different light sources—ultraviolet light, strobe, and tungsten—to get the job done. Additional imaging, using powerful synchrotron radiation at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, showed writing that had been hidden beneath religious paintings that had been added in the 20th century.

The Big Reveal

The palimpsest contains a copy of a previously unknown Archimedes work, his treatise called The Method of Mechanical Theorems. In it, Archimedes focused on the concept of infinity, showing how the use of infinitesimals could be employed to determine area or volume. His approach was remarkably similar to 17th-century works by Newton and Leibnitz, leading to the invention of the calculus.

The manuscript also contains the only surviving copy in the original Greek text of his work On Floating Bodies, as well as the text of his works On The Measurement of the Circle, On the Sphere and the Cylinder, On Spiral Lines, and On the Equilibrium of Planes

Also found only in the Palimpsest is Archimedes’ Stomachion—among the earliest known mathematical puzzles also known as tangrams. Scientists believe that in it Archimedes was trying to discover how many ways one could recombine 14 pieces of a geometric puzzle and still make a perfect square. The answer is high and counterintuitive—17,152 combinations. This area of study, known as combinatorics, is critical in modern computing.

Related Book and Events

Published in 2010 to coincide with the palimpsest’s debut at the Walters, The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist reads as part archaeological detective story, part science, and part history. The 313-page book is co-authored by Will Noel, formerly of the Walters Art Museum, and Reviel Netz, professor of classics and philosophy at Stanford University.

Scholarly Conference and Public Lecture: Will Noel, Reviel Netz, and Walters Art Museum conservator Abigail Quandt will speak at The Huntington about the Archimedes project on Thursday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m. in the Ahmanson Room. A one-day conference on the topic will be held the following day. Details will follow on the website:

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