The Archimedes Palimpsest

The History of the Archimedes Manuscript

At 2pm on October 29th, 1998, at Christie's auction house in New York, a very special old book was sold to an anonymous collector for $2,000,000. This collector deposited the manuscript at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore in order to conserve it, image it, and study it. The book is special because it contains seven treatises by the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes. Two of these treatises, The Stomachion and The Method exist nowhere else in the world. This book is also the unique source for Archimedes' treatise On Floating Bodies in the original Greek. The Archimedes Palimpsest, as this book is called, has true claims to greatness: it is the earliest surviving Archimedes manuscript by about 400 years; it is the most important source for the diagrams that Archimedes drew in the sand in Syracuse, in the third century B.C. It is by far the most important evidence we have for the greatness of Archimedes. And Archimedes was a very great man.

Paleography, or the study of ancient texts, can allow us to approximately date when manuscripts were written. The Archimedes manuscript was probably written in the second half of the tenth century. It was almost certainly written at Constantinople, for the simple reason that there is no other place that we know of where ancient mathematics was systematically studied and copied. Constantinople was the one place with a continued tradition of copying and preserving ancient texts from antiquity through the Middle Ages.

Specifically, the study of Archimedes texts can be associated with the work of Leo the Geometer. Leo the Geometer was the cousin of John VII Morocharzianus, who was Patriarch in Constantinople between 837 and 843. In the 820's, Leo was giving private instruction in Constantinople. Evidently he was successful at inspiring his students: one of them, who had read Euclid under his supervision, was captured by the Arabs in 830. His report of Leo's learning was sufficient to cause the Caliph to invite Leo to Baghdad. He did not go. Instead he took up the charge of the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus (829-842) to educate the public in the church of the Forty Martyrs in Constantinople.

Leo was clearly something of a polymath, and a practical one at that. While in Theophilus's service, he built fire stations between the City and the border of the Empire. Should there be an emergency on the border north of Tarsus, a message could reach the Capital in less than an hour. In the Late 850's the assistant Emperor, Bardas, founded a school in the Imperial Palace, under Leo's direction. Other professors were appointed too: Cometas, a literary scholar, Theodegius, an astronomer, and, perhaps most significantly for us Theodore, a geometer. We know few of the details of Leo's school, but we can assume that it was a center of learning. Two surviving manuscripts containing texts by Archimedes contain inscriptions praising Leo the Geometer. It seems highly likely that it was as a result of his work that manuscripts of Archimedes were copied in this period.

The ninth and tenth centuries were glorious centuries for the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople was immensely wealthy, and physically secure. The imperial palace was a center of culture, and its monasteries flourished.

This is the climate in which it is easiest to see the Archimedes manuscript being copied. However, the long period of prosperity ended abruptly in 1204. In this year, the Fourth Crusade, sanctioned by Pope Innocent III, set out for the Holy Land. However, they stopped short of their goal, and sacked Constantinople. Constantinople was the richest City in Europe, and for over 700 years it had been a safe haven for ancient texts.

the sack of Constantinople

But the years after the sack of Constantinople were not years in which there was a great need for the advanced mathematical treatises of Archimedes, or the Ancient speeches of Hyperides, or a Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.

While it may well have been in the aftermath of these events that the seven manuscripts were palimpsested to make the prayerbook, the prayerbook was not made in Constantinople. In fact it was almost certainly made in Jerusalem. We know this because many of the prayers are specific to the rites of the Church in Jerusalem and its immediate environs. Quite what these rare manuscripts were doing in Jerusalem, or how they got there, is not at all clear. There was a lot of travel between the Holy Land and Europe at this time, not least because of the crusades.

In 2002, Professor John Lowden of the Courtauld Institute, using Ultra-violet light, managed to decipher a colophon, on the bottom of folio 1 verso of the manuscript, which contains the date of April 13, 1229. This is almost certainly the day upon which the prayerbook was finished. It was also just a few weeks after Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, Stupor Mundi, released Jerusalem from Muslim control. Clearly the political climate was volatile. Under such circumstances parchment might have been in very short supply, and this would be one reason why the scribe of the prayerbook might have recycled the parchment of earlier manuscripts.

The manuscript survived as a prayer book from that day until it was catalogued by Papadopoulos-Kerameus.

In 1899, this scholar produced a catalogue of the manuscripts which belonged to the Greek patriarch in Jerusalem, but which were housed at the Metochion – or daughter house – of the Holy Sepulcher, in Constantinople. The book is Ms. 355 in this catalogue. One detail that Papadopoulos records, and which no longer survives, is that the book contained a sixteenth century inscription saying that it belonged to the monastery of St Sabbas.

Traditionally founded in 483 by St. Sabbas, this monastery was an intellectual and spiritual center in the Holy Land at an early date. It is situated a few miles South of Jerusalem and directly east of Bethlehem on the West Bank. The community at Mar Saba had a well organized scriptorium for writing books, some of them lavishly illuminated, at least into the twelfth century, and in 1834 there were more than 1000 manuscripts in the Library. The monastery is spectacular, and looks as much like a fortress as a house of God, a necessity in the troubled times that the community has faced through the centuries. A most striking account of the monastery is given by the Rev. George Croly, who, accompanied by the artist David Roberts of the Royal Academy, arrived at the Monastery of St. Saba on April 4, 1839. Croly records, "The immediate approach to the convent is striking....It was night when after having descended into the bed of a ravine, where the Kidron passes to the Dead Sea, and arriving at the foot of the Mountain of St. Saba, we saw the convent above us, by the uncertain light of the moon. It looked a lofty and colossal structure, rising in stories and terraces, one above another, against the sides of the mountain to its summit, and there crowned with clouds. An old white-bearded monk, leaning on his staff, was toiling up the side of the hill leading a long procession of devotees. Below, apparently growing out of the rock, was a large palm tree said to have been planted by the hands of the Saint in the fourth century. History, and probably legend, contributed its share to the effect. In a chapel behind an iron grating in one of the grottos was a pile of skulls. The tradition of the convent said they were those of hermits who, to the amount of several thousand, had been slaughtered by the Osmanlis. We ascended the flight of steps, climbed up a ladder, crept through a small door only large enough to admit one at a time, and found ourselves in an antechamber, surrounded by above a hundred Greek pilgrims….It was Passion Week. The monks receive strangers with courtesy, and they not merely permitted the artist to sketch their chapel, but as their service was beginning before he had finished his design, they would not suffer him to lay aside his pencil."

We do not know when the Palimpsest got to St Sabbas, but it is clear that it was there in the sixteenth century. It is also clear that it had moved again by about 1840, and was in the Metochion by that time. The Biblical scholar Constantine Tischendorf visited the Metochion in the early 1840's and wrote an account of his travels entitled "Travels in the East" in 1846. He says that he visited the Metochion, but found nothing of particular interest except for a palimpsest containing some mathematics. Clearly Tischendorf found this book very interesting, as one leaf from the Archimedes Palimpsest was sold to Cambridge University Library in 1876 from his estate.

(left) It is now C.U.L. Ms. Add. 1879.23. It was only identified as coming from the Archimedes Palimpsest by Nigel Wilson in 1968.

Tischendorf, of course, did not know that the palimpsest contained the writings of Archimedes, and neither did Papadopoulos-Kerameus in 1899. However, Papadopoulos-Kerameus did transcribe a few lines of the under text. These were called to the attention of John Ludwig Heiberg, who was the world's authority on Archimedes. Heiberg recognized that the under text was from Archimedes’ treatise Sphere and Cylinder, and that this was a previously unreported manuscript of Archimedes that he needed to see. Heiberg visited the Metochion in 1906, and discovered the truth, that this book contained seven treatises by Archimedes, including the unique source for The Method, The Stomachion, and On Floating Bodies in Greek.

Heiberg took photographs of the manuscript (right), and used these extensively for his work on the book. Heiberg incorporated his findings into an entirely new edition of the complete works of Archimedes, which he published between 1910 and 1915.

It is not known how the Palimpsest left the Metochion after Heiberg last studied it in 1908. It was auctioned at Christie's in New York on the 28th October 1998, and advertised as from a private French collection. The day before the sale the Greek Government and the Greek patriarch issued an injunction against Christie's in an attempt to stop the sale. They argued that the book was stolen. The injunction failed, and the sale went ahead. The court records of the injunction and subsequent proceedings make it clear that the manuscript had been in the French collection at least since the 1960's, and the family claimed that it had in fact, belonged to them since the 1920's. Be that as it may, the book has suffered greatly since the time when Heiberg saw it.

The photographs of the Palimpsest in 1906 are compared with the current state of the manuscript

The damage comes in three main forms

Firstly, some pages are missing. The most important are three missing pages that once contained Archimedes text. We know that they were there in 1908 as Heiberg transcribed them, and even took a photograph of one of them. They are simply not there now.

Secondly, the book has suffered very severely from mold. Medieval manuscripts tend to be strong. They are made of the same raw material as leather shoes. Fire and damp can damage them however, and this book has been very severely attacked by mold, as comparison between images that Heiberg took and pictures of the same pages now reveal. It is very often the case that whole areas of text are now missing.

Finally, and most extraordinarily, four paintings of the Evangelists have been added to the book, over the top of the prayer book text, and therefore over the top of the under texts beneath that. These images were clearly made after 1929, as John Lowden has shown that they were copied from a publication of that year entitled Manuscrits Grecs de la Bibliotheque Nationale.

The manuscript was bought at auction by an anonymous American collector who deposited the book at The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, for conservation, imaging, and scholarly study, in January 1999. Work on the Palimpsest, funded by the owner, has been ongoing ever since.