The Archimedes Palimpsest is now on Google Books!

Back in 1229 A.D., someone, probably in Jerusalem, probably a monk, wanted to write a prayer book. He had no clean sheets of parchment, so he did what people used to do in those days: he looked for some existing parchment, intending to scrape it clean and re-use it.

As this fellow searched about for pre-loved parchment, his hand fell upon the last remaining copy of Archimedes' treatise called The Method of Mechanical Theorems. It wasn't a religious text so obviously no one would want it; he erased it. He picked up the only remaining copy of On Floating Bodies written in the original Greek. He erased that too. He erased sections of the Stomachion which have not survived anywhere else. He tossed in four other books by Archimedes which at least have survived elsewhere in other versions. For good measure he threw in ten pages of oratory from Hyperides, whose words appear nowhere else, the 4th century legal eagle who was the defender of Phryne the Hetaera, the man who made legal history in a way described in another of my articles.

This monk is lucky we don't know his name, because he may hold the record for the greatest single-handed destruction of knowledge ever. The burning of the Library of Alexandria would obviously have destroyed far more, but it took lots of men to do that. It was this fellow's bad luck to pick up one unique text after another.

Our monk erased all these unique books, and wrote over them a bunch of prayers of no particular interest whatsoever. The resulting palimpset passed from place to place until, 723 years later in 1906, the underlying text, barely visible through the overlying ink and mostly illegible, was recognized for what it was. Scholars took some photos, as best they could in 1906, and're not going to believe this, it reads like a thriller...the Archimedes Palimpsest went missing, probably stolen.

As far as anyone knew, that was the end of the story, the lost works of Archimedes lost once more.

Cut to 1998. Christies Auction House is selling a palimpsest that has been in a private collection since the 1930s. Upon inspection it turns out to be...the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Modern digital imaging technology was applied to the parchment before anyone else had a chance to lift it, and the Archimedes Palimpsest appears for the first time on Google Books. How cool is that?

This book is seriously out of copyright, so everyone is free to download it and at least gaze at ancient texts that went missing for centuries.

The most amazing thing for me about what's been discovered is that, in The Method of Mechanical Theorems, Archimedes describes a mathematical technique which is the next best thing to calculus! Now calculus was worked out independently by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz in the 17th century, and its development opened up new ways to analyze the world and vastly sped up scientific discovery. It seems Archimedes got there first, but we didn't know it until now. How smart would a guy have to be to make such a discovery 1,600 years before the next person to work it out? And how much more advanced might the world be today if that monk had published Archimedes instead of wiping him out?


Roger Easton said...

The comment that we do not know the name of the monk who erased the original Archimedes text is incorrect -- it is Ioannes Myronas, as discovered in 2006 when the manuscript was imaged using X-ray fluorescence. Dr. William Noel, Director of the Archimedes Palimpsest project, has said that he believes that Myronas may be credited with SAVING the writings rather than destroying them, since he provided a camouflage that actually preserved them.

Gary Corby said...

Ah, thanks for that, Roger.

And welcome to the blog!

Gary Corby said...

OMG, I just realized that a Roger Easton was one of the imaging experts on the palimpsest...