Parchment is animal-skin paper and parchment manuscripts (handwritten documents), whether scrolls or codices (handwritten bound books). Parchment is sufficiently durable that one can take a knife to it to scrape off a text and write a new one on it, which was useful to Medieval scribes when paper was difficult to obtain.
Books with overwritten texts are called palimpsests. The English word palimpsest is derived from the Latin word palimsestus, which, in turn, is derived from the Greek word palímpsestos (“scratched or scarped again”).
The most famous palimpsest may be the Archimedes Palimpsest, which has multiple lost texts underneath the text of a 13th Century prayer book. When he examined the book in 1906, the Danish philologist Johan Ludvig Heiberg (1854-1928) discovered when scribe John Myronas handwrote the text of the Byzantine prayer book called a euchologion in Greekin 1229, he wrote over 10th Century copies of works by the Greek scientist-inventor Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 B.C.).
Archimedes was born in Syracuse, a wealthy Greek city-state that dominated eastern Sicily, the son of the mathematician-astronomer Phidias. After learning as much as he could in Syracuse, Archimedes traveled to Egypt to study at the Library of Alexandria, and then he returned to Syracuse, where he was of much service to King Hiero II, to whom he may have been related.
He invented the Archimedes Screw to drain rainwater from a water-logged ship at Hiero’s behest. The most famous story about Archimedes has to do with determining if a crown Hiero had made was pure gold when Hiero suspected the goldsmith had adulterated it.
While lowering himself in a bath, Archimdes realized he could determine an object’s volume by measuring how much water it displaced. Once he determined the crown’s volume, all he had to do was weigh it to determine its density, hence its purity. Supposedly, he jumped out of the bathtub and ran down the street naked shouting “Eureka!” (“I found it!”).
Archimedes is also well-remembered for the machines he devised to defend his city. Since the isle of Sicily occupied a strategic point in the Mediterranean between the Italian mainland and North Africa, the Romans and Carthaginians fought over Syracuse in the Punic Wars.
Before his death in 216, Hiero gave Archimedes the task of strengthening the city walls of Syracuse and the fortress Euryelos. In 214 B.C., Syracuse was allied with Carthage and Rome sent an army under the command of Marcus Claudius Marcellus to conquer the city, ending its independence.
The Greek historian Polybius recounted the destruction wrought by weapons designed by Archimedes. He seems to have devised a way to use mirrors on the city walls to focus sunlight on warships causing them to catch fire.
Other machines drove ships up in the air and pulled them down into the sea. Still others caused ships to sink with the application of iron weights.
For two years, Syracuse withstood the Roman siege, in large part thanks to the genius of Archimedes, but in 212 B.C. the Romans stormed the city. Marcellus ordered his men to capture Archimedes alive, but one of the legionaries killed him when the old man complained about the soldier projecting a shadow on the mathematical formula he was drawing, oblivious to the city’s fall. Marcellus had Archimedes buried with honors.
The original, hidden Greek texts were probably produced in Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire.
These texts were scraped off to make way for the text of a prayer book in Jerusalem. We know that because some of the prayers were specific to the city.
The prayer book appeared in an 1899 catalog a scholar prepared of books that belonged to the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem, but which were housed at the Metochion (daughter house) of the Holy Sepulcher, in Constantinople. The catalog mentions an inscription, now lost, that stated the book had been in the library of St. Sabbas Monastery in the 16th Century.
By the 19th Century, the book had somehow found its way from this monastery east of Bethlehem to the Metochion. In the 1840s, the Biblical scholar Constantine Tischendorf evidently stole a sheet from the Archimedes Palimpsest, because he obliquely mentioned having seen the book while visiting the Metochion in his book Travels to the East, published in 1846, and after he died his estate sold the page to Cambridge University Library in 1879, as Nigel Wilson discovered in 1968.
Paleography is the study of ancient texts. With it, scholars can give an approximate date as to when a text was written.
Heiberg was able to recover parts of the Archimedes texts, but with gaps. In some cases, these were the only copies of the ancient Greek mathematician-scientist’s works to have survived into modern times. The polymath Sir Thomas Little Heath (1861-1941) translated these partially-recovered texts into English.
A collector identified as Mr. B had purchased the 13th Century prayer book for $2,000,000 at auction. The day before Mr. B purchased it auction at Christie’s on October 28, 1998, the Republic of Greece and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem filed an injunction to stop the sale, arguing the Archimedes Palimpsest had been stolen, but the injunction failed.
The new owner agreed to lend the prayer book now known as the Archimedes Palimpsest to the Walters Art Museum in the hope that newer imaging techniques would allow for the recovery of the hidden texts overwritten in the palimpsest. Mr. B has funded the scholarly study of the book.
In 1999, Michael Toth read about this project in The Washington Post. At the time, he was a policy director at the National Reconnaissance Office (N.R.O.), an intelligence agency that designs, builds, and operates spy satellites and feeds information to the N.S.A. and C.I.A.
Toth believed he knew how to capture high-resolution images of the pages that would allow for the recovery of the lost texts, e-mailed the museum director, and became a voluntary project manager. With Curator Will Noel, he built a team of scientists who used lights and filters when they photographed pages in such a way as to allow computers to enhance the lost texts in the palimpsest.
We now know the euchologion, which is of interest itself, contains seven copies of texts written by Archimedes. The seven treastises are The Equilibrium of Planes, Spiral Lines, The Measurement of the Circle, Sphere and Cylinder, On Floating Bodies, The Method of Mechanical Theorems, and the Stomachion.
Of these seven treatises, one – On Floating Bodies – is the only copy to survive into modern times in Greek, the language in which Archimedes wrote, and two – The Method of Mechanical Theorems and the Stomachion – are the only copies to have survived into modern times in any language.
In 2002, the team discovered that in addition to the Archimedes texts, the Archimedes Palimpsest contained a lost text by the 4th Century B.C. Athenian politician Hyperides. This was the only work by him to make it into modern times. Previously, modern scholars had been familiar with him only through quotations by other ancient authors.
Subsequently, the team discovered that in addition to works by Archimedes and Hyperides, the Archimedes Palimpsest included a text by a third author, a work of philosophy. Professor Roger Easton of the Rochester Institute of Technology explained to BBC News in 2007 the team recovered this particular text with multispectral imaging.
Then a second team that included Professor Reviel Netz of Stanford University deciphered the text. They found an early commentary on Aristotle’s Categories. Professor Robert Sharples from University College London told the BBC that this second team believed the commentator was Alexander of Aphrodisias. There are yet four other texts hidden in the Archimedes Palimpsest, two of which have yet to be identified.
Due to Toth’s work on the Archimedes Palimpsest, Fr. Justin, the librarian of St. Catherine’s Monastery, formally the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, a Greek Orthodox monastery in Egypt’s Sinai desert, believed Toth could help the monks at St. Catherine’s recover the lost texts in palimpsests in St. Catherine’s library, which is the oldest continuously active library in the world. Later this week, I will profile the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery and its treasures.