October 19, 2011
Eureka! Secret book by Archimedes discovered
by Valerie Merians
In what can only be called an incredible feat of conservation technology, a 1,000 year old text by Archimedes is now on view at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. “The exhibition, ‘Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,’ which opened Sunday, tells the story of the 1,000-year-old text and the work of dozens of scientists and scholars who uncovered its secrets. After the exhibition closes Jan. 1, the Archimedes Palimpsest will be returned to its anonymous owner,” according to this report on Fox News.
After over a decade of restoration, viewers will be able to see the oldest surviving copy of the works of the mathematician, physicist, inventor, engineer and astronomer Archemedes who lived in Greek Syracuse in the third century B.C.. Archemedes was one of the most formidable mathematicians of the ancient world, an applied his mathematical know-how to engineering feats like the water pump, the Archemedes Screw and the Archimedes Heat Ray – used to destroy enemy ships with fire generated by magnifying lenses. And of course, he is rumored to have said “Eureka!” after making a discovery about water displacement while in the bath.
The book is a “palimpsest,” meaning the original text was erased and written over, but is still visible, if only faintly. Sold at auction for $2 million in 1998, the book arrived at the Walters Museum 12 years ago. It was in tatters, and scholars were doubtful that the Archimedes text could be excavated.
“Scholars believe a 10th-century scribe copied the text from Archimedes’ original Greek scrolls, but 200 years later, another scribe scraped the text from the parchment, rebound it and reused it as a prayerbook. Ironically, this affront to what is now considered such a rare piece of history may have been the key to its persistence,” according to the Fox report.
“I feel pretty good about Johannes Myronas,” Will Noel, Archimedes Project director and Walters curator of manuscripts and rare books, told Fox in reference to the scribe whose name was uncovered by x-ray beams on the first page. “If he did not create this prayerbook, there was no other way it would have survived. Because of its Christian disguise it was not neglected.”
According to the Fox report:
The prayer book was cared for through the centuries until 1844 when it was found in a Constantinople convent’s collection. And in 1906, Johan Ludwig Heiberg recognized the text contained previously unknown works by Archimedes and created a new edition of his works.
The manuscript then disappeared for decades and resurfaced in France, where researchers believe a collector commissioned forgery paintings over the text after 1938. These forgeries and the glue binding the book together posed the biggest challenge to conservators, according to Abigail Quandt, senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books.
Quandt remembers seeing a story about the auction of the palimpsest.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God! I feel bad for the conservator who will have to work with that,’” she said. “And then it ended up at the Walters and I had to eat my words.”
The process of conserving the book and imaging it was slow, including four years just to take the book apart. But along the way Quandt came up with new technologies that can be applied to other projects.
“I had to invent new procedures for working on parchment that was so incredibly deteriorated,” she said.
Most of the text in the manuscript was recovered using multispectral imaging, but the toughest leaves were taken to the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource lab. There, X-ray beams were used to reveal text beneath the forgery paintings and heavy grime.
But visitors to the exhibition won’t need any special technology to see the original writings on the pages.
“The Archimedes text is quite visible to the naked eye,” Quandt said.
The conservation work is expected to be complete by the end of the year, but the scholarly work will continue for years.
Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.