Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Restoring an Archimedes Manuscript

Via Rare Book News comes this report from today's San Mateo County Times (CA), about the ongoing recovery of a manuscript containing treatises and diagrams of the Greek scientist Archimedes. The manuscript was discovered under the text of a Greek prayer book (the text of which had been painted over by a French forger with illuminations of the early evangelists), and is now being examined with a particle accelerator and x-ray beams in the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory.

The palimpsest, owned by Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, is called by curator William Noel "
the ugliest manuscript I have ever seen. ... It doesn't look like a great document. It's a pig's ear of a manuscript, and that's because it's 1,000 years old, it's been reused, it's been burned and been eaten by mold. But these are foundational text[s] for the history of the Western mathematical tradition."

Ian Hoffman's article outlines the very interesting history of this document, which is "probably a copy of a copy of a copy of Archimedes' original writings on papyrus. The copy on the parchment appears to have been made in Constantinople, the center of the Byzantine world, then kept in a library in the Holy Lands, possibly in Jerusalem. In A.D. 1229, a monastery scribe ran short of parchment and recycled Archimedes' treatises and four other books from the library. With pumice and lemon juice or milk, the scribe erased the five books, then he cut them in half, rotated the pages and wrote a prayer book."

It's only because the Archimedes texts were erased that the document survived, say some; otherwise it might have been destroyed. In 1906 the palimpsest was noticed and photographed, but then disappeared until 1970 when it was discovered with the pages painted over. The work was purchased anonymously for $2 million in 1998, allowing the restoration process to begin.

The article notes that the Exploratorium will broadcast a live webcast of the restoration efforts at 4 p.m. PDT on Friday, August 4.