“It was basically a utilitarian book,” says Quandt, meaning that the ghost of the old text never bothered anyone so long as the new prayers were legible. So when the book resurfaced in Constantinople in the 19th century, much of the original text was recovered. In 1906, a Danish scholar transcribed what he could decipher and photographed the pages he thought relevant.
The palimpsest went underground, into a private collection, through most of the 20th century, during which it suffered damage far more grievous than anything that had befallen it during its first 700 years of life. Forgers painted over several pages with faux-Byzantine imagery to increase its marketability among rare-book collectors. Mold attacked it and undermined many pages. Misguided restoration efforts introduced alien glue into the binding, making it difficult to separate the pages and read them.
As much of that damage as can be safely be undone has been undone during the restoration. Using multi-spectral imaging techniques and computer algorithms, digital images have been produced that help the original Archimedes and ancient texts stand out from the visual clutter around them.
Scholars associated with the Walters project have poured through the images and come up with their best attempt at a transcript. Noel says that there are thousands of small and some very large changes to the version created by the Danish scholar in 1906. In 2007, when he co-wrote “The Archimedes Codex,” Netz was already excited by what he considers two major changes in how we will think about Archimedes. He argues that in a passage impossible to transcribe in 1906, Archimedes advances the understanding of infinity far beyond what scholars assumed was the case among the ancient Greeks. And in another text called the “Stomachion,” Archimedes conceptualizes problems that now fall under the branch of mathematics known as combinatorics, or how to calculate the finite — but often very large — number of solutions to a particular problem.
“I don’t think there is a complete consensus about either of these points,” says professor Alexander Jones of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. But Jones, who studies ancient science and mathematics, is excited by the imminent arrival of the Cambridge University Press volumes and the chance to see the material for himself.
From what he’s seen, the new version of the “Stomachion” is the most promising material.
“What we have here is a very early example of a kind of mathematical thinking that until a few years ago we didn’t think the Greeks did at all,” he says.
As the story of the Archimedes palimpsest has been told and retold, it is the computer-age imaging that often dominates the narrative, which is ironic given that one of the most exciting discoveries in the codex has nothing to do with science. Among the parchment pages gathered into the prayer book were Greek texts by the Athenian orator Hyperides that had never been seen before. They are a window into the litigious world of Athens during its decline. In one text already released in translation, Hyperides answers the charges of his accuser Diondas, revealing a man with a lawyerly mind methodically and elegantly defending his actions and his patriotism.
Whereas the Archimedes material was known to exist and had been partially transcribed and photographed, the Hyperides speeches were assumed entirely lost.
The museum’s curators have wisely chosen to include examples of Quandt’s conservation tools and techniques, her careful tracings of every page onto Mylar sheets, preserving for posterity every hole, crease, tear and discoloration, and a card file filled with small plastic bags in which she saved every fiber, flake and extraneous matter removed from the book.
The show ends with a room that has nothing to do with palimpsests but rather demonstrates for visitors ongoing research and preservation projects at the museum. It is, in the end, a bit of self-advertising for the iceberg, but it’s not out of place. The enormous costs of saving and transcribing the Archimedes texts were paid for by the book’s private owner. Other objects, in museums across the country, don’t have this kind of patronage. By telling the story of the Archimedes Palimpsest in depth the Walters is making an argument about the humanist tradition that goes well beyond its own holdings.
Lost and Found:
The Secrets of Archimedes
Through Jan. 1 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. 410-547-9000.