Palimpsests—recycled handwritten books from the Middle Ages—aren't a particularly big deal. "They're around," says Will Noel, curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum here. "What's rare is finding one that's interesting."
The interesting part is always the original text that the recycler (or palimpsester) tried to erase in order to write a new, different book. Occasionally the original text is recovered and proves historically valuable, as in the case of a sixth-century palimpsest found to have been made from a very early copy of the Gospel of St. Luke.
This 13th-century prayer book was made by scraping the original text off the parchment paper, removing the binding, rotating the pages 90 degrees and rebinding the pages in book form.
But a palimpsest that contains previously lost writings of not one, not two, but three significant texts dating back to antiquity? "That's a freak," Mr. Noel observes.
Such a freak is about to go on exhibit at the Walters beginning Sunday. "Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes" is a palimpsest that mostly contains recovered writings of the great Greek mathematician, but it also includes two other recovered texts that have caught the attention of a variety of scholars. A good chunk of these writings exist nowhere else, any other copies having been lost or destroyed long ago.
"It really is a small ancient library of unique texts," Mr. Noel says.
Considering the Archimedes palimpsest's filthy, abused condition upon arrival at the Walters in 1999, and its mysterious travels of nearly 800 years, including a stretch in the hands of forgers, it's a surprise the irreplaceable relic is much of anything. But thanks to more than 10 years of painstaking conservation efforts, the palimpsest now looks, well, hardly new, but certainly pretty good for all it's been through.
In 1229, a monk in Jerusalem wanted to make a prayer book, but virgin parchment—the staple of medieval publishing—was hard to come by. So the monk did what most people did at the time—took existing handwritten books, removed the binding, and used a knife to scrape the ink as much as possible from the parchment folios. He then cut the folios in half, rotated them 90 degrees and started writing on them. Eventually he added a new binding, and a palimpsest—derived from the Greek word palimpsestos, meaning "scraped again"—was born.
The monk had used parchment from several books, the principal one a tome of Archimedes's treatises on math, first written on papyrus in the third century B.C. and then copied into book form around the 10th century, Mr. Noel says.
What happened to the palimpsest for the next 670 years is anyone's guess, but by the turn of the last century it was in a monastery in Constantinople, where in 1906 remnants of the original ink were identified as the work of Archimedes. But the prayer book disappeared again, turning up three decades later in a private collection in Paris. By then, forgers had painted images of saints on seven pages, trying to make them look as if they, too, dated from 1229.
In 1998 the daughter-in-law of the Parisian collector brought the Archimedes palimpsest, as it had then come to be known, to Christie's in New York, where it was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $2 million. Abigail Quandt, senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters, saw a newspaper photograph of the palimpsest—riddled with mold and bacteria, stained with oil, nibbled on by insects, dripped on by candles—and thought, "I wonder who's going to have to deal with this."
She got an answer a few months later, when the buyer deposited the palimpsest with the Walters. Ms. Quandt was put in charge of preparing the work for digital imaging, which would highlight any remaining traces of Archimedes's treatises in addition to the small portion identified in 1906. The preparation, however, demanded a level of excruciating care beyond any she had experienced in her 20 years of manuscript conservation. Just removing the binding and separating the 174 fragile folios took four years alone, followed by countless hours of carefully lifting mold and dirt. The worst: Removing the paintings of saints, which lay atop the prayer book writing, which in turn lay atop the Archimedes undertext.
When a team of four digital-imaging experts from around the country began submitting folios to different wavelengths of light—infrared and ultraviolet, among others—it quickly became clear that no single wavelength would adequately reveal the vestigial ink of the undertext. The team eventually devised a composite wavelength, and the palimpsest began to give up its secrets.
"Only the Archimedes text had been identified to that point," Mr. Noel says. "But now we started to see there were others."
The others included entire speeches of the Athenian orator Hyperides, a fourth-century B.C. contemporary of Demosthenes, as well as a detailed commentary, author unknown, on Aristotle's "Categories," a fundamental text of Western philosophy.
The big find remained Archimedes' math treatises—a total of seven, far more than previously known, and two exist in no other form. One addresses the concept of absolute infinity; the other, combinatorics, a segment of math that plays a role in statistical physics and modern computing. No one knew Archimedes had ever broached either subject. Researchers have transcribed and released portions of the seven treatises, whetting some scholarly appetites. "The imminent massive publication of a complete facsimile and transcription will be a huge gift to the study of ancient mathematics," says Alexander Jones, director of graduate studies at New York University's Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.
Hyperides was among the most influential orators of his time, but until now only fragments of his speeches existed. Already available for review, the recovered full speeches provide "new evidence for the politics and legal practice of Greek city-states at the time of Philip of Macedon's rise to power, and historians have begun publishing papers on their findings," says Pat Easterling, Emeritus Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge University.
Not much has survived regarding "Categories," which scholars know was the subject of intense philosophical debate in the first-century B.C. The commentary found in the palimpsest has offered a wealth of details about that debate, and as a result "it enriches our understanding of an ancient and medieval interpretative tradition regarding the treatise that was considered to be the proper entry route into Aristotelianism," says David Sedley, a classics professor also at Cambridge. "It is therefore an important addition to our understanding of Aristotelianism."
Quite possibly the exhibit will show that history itself may be a kind of palimpsest. "Whether you study philosophy or science or whatever," Mr. Noel says, "the Archimedes palimpsest breaks down boundaries between disciplines. It contains history, philosophy and mathematics, and then all the latest technologies that were applied—the digital imaging, the metadata management—along with all the scholarship. We'd like people to know that because of all these things, history is still being written."
Mr. Triplett is a writer in Washington.
By WILLIAM TRIPLETT