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In 1998,  a 13th century Greek Orthodox prayer book sold at auction at Christie's New York for $2 million.  Why did it sell at such a high price?  It's a palimpsest, an erased and overwritten document, and the true value of the book lays beneath the prayers, where one can make out the faint markings of a much older text—the only surviving copy of the essential works of Archimedes. The palimpsest had been identified in 1906 by Johan Ludvig Heiberg, a famous Danish historian who was able to decipher and transcribe portions of the text.  The scope of his research was limited, however, by the limited technology at the time and because he was working with the bound text. As soon as the palimpsest was sold in 1998, William Noel of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore contacted the buyer to request permission to loan the palimpsest and put it on temporary display at the Walters.  To Noel's surprise and delight, the buyer arrived in Baltimore with the palimpsest in hand and offered to fund an extensive scholarly project to conserve and study it.  Noel was appointed director of the Archimedes Palimpsest Project, and he embarked on a twelve year journey 'into' the text.

Conservators, historians, manuscript experts, and scientists from around the world assisted the project, and Noel pointed out that "dedicated scholarship has brought these erased texts back to light."  X-rays were particularly helpful in revealing text beneath saints' portraits, but regular x-ray beams were not focused nor powerful enough to uncover the iron-based ink of Archimedes' text.  The palimpsest was taken to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center to use the accelerator itself as the source of x-ray emissions.  Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the project, however, was disbinding the palimpsest, a task that was necessary for conserving and studying the piece.  Art & Antiques magazine reports:

When Ioannes Myronas and his colleagues harvested the parchment from the Archimedes manuscript for reuse in the prayer book, they scraped away the original text, which apparently held no interest for them, cut the pages along the spine edge, rotated them by 90 degrees and folded and rebound them in a way that yielded a new book with pages roughly half the size of the original. As a result, key portions of the Archimedes text were trapped in the gutter of the prayer book’s spine. Complicating matters, at some point during the 20th century a misguided restorer attempted to strengthen the prayer book’s sewn binding with a modern synthetic glue such as might be used by woodworkers. “For Abigail  to free those pages from the binding without further damage or loss was a delicate and time-consuming operation,” says Noel. “The glue was stronger than the parchment.”

The fruits of twelve years of conservation and research will be displayed in an exhibit, Lost & Found: The Secrets of Archimedes, at the Walters Art Museum from October 16, 2011 through January 1, 2012.  

Click here to visit the exhibition website.  


Lost & Found: The Secrets of Archimedes