Archimedes Palimpsest Media Center

A Layered Look Reveals Ancient Greek Texts

Published: November 27, 2006 – New York Times

Archimedes Palimpsest Media Contact:
Will Noel, Program Director
410-547-9000, ext. 253

BALTIMORE – An ambitious international project to decipher 1,000-year-old moldy pages is yielding new clues about ancient Greece as seen through the eyes of Hyperides, an important Athenian orator and politician from the fourth century B.C. What is slowly coming to light, scholars say, represents the most significant discovery of Hyperides text since 1891, illuminating some fascinating, time-shrouded insights into Athenian law and social history.

Professor Judson Herrman examines the Archimedes Palimpsest.

The Archimedes Palimpsest.

"This helps to fill in critical moments in ancient classical Greece," said William Noel, the curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum here and the director of the Archimedes Palimpsest project. Hyperides "is one of the great foundational figures of Greek democracy and the golden age of Athenian democracy, the foundational democracy of all democracy."

The Archimedes Palimpsest, sold at auction at Christie's for $2 million in 1998, is best known for containing some of the oldest copies of work by the great Greek mathematician who gives the manuscript its name. But there is more to the palimpsest than Archimedes' work, including 10 pages of Hyperides, offering tantalizing and fresh insights into the critical battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., in which the Greeks defeated the Persians, and the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., which spelled the beginning of the end of Greek democracy.

The palimpsest is believed to have been created by Byzantine monks in the 13th century, probably in Constantinople. As was the practice then, the durable and valuable vellum pages of several older texts were washed and scraped, to remove their writing, and then used for a medieval prayer book. The pages of the older books became the sheaths of a newer one, thus a palimpsest (which is pronounced PAL-imp-sest and is Greek for "rubbed again").

After the Christie's sale the manuscript was left at the museum by the private collector for conservation and study. This year imagers at Stanford University used powerful X-ray fluorescence imaging to read its final pages, which are being interpreted, transcribed and translated by a group of scholars in the United States and Europe.

The new Hyperides revelations include two previously unknown speeches, effectively increasing this renowned orator's body of work by 20 percent, said Judson Herrman, a 36-year-old professor of classics at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. He is one of a handful of classicists who have written doctoral dissertations on Hyperides.

Hyperides lived from 390 or 389 B.C. until 322 B.C. and was an orator who made speeches at public meetings of the citizen assembly. A contemporary of Aristotle and Demosthenes, he wrote speeches for himself and for others and spoke at important political trials. In 322 B.C. Hyperides was executed by the Macedonians for participating in a failed rebellion.

"It's a spotlight shining on an important moment in history," said Mr. Herrman, currently a fellow at the National Humanities Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Until the new leaves were found in the palimpsest, most scholars believed only fragments of Hyperides survived beyond the Classical period. The mystery of Archimedes' treatise on combinatorics, the Stomachion, was solved in 2003 by deciphering the palimpsest. Now W. Robert Connor, the president of the Teagle Foundation, which provides education and financial resources for education, called the discovery of new Hyperides text a "tour de force of the first order."

A combination of high-tech imagery and old-fashioned deciphering, sometimes letter by letter, was used to resurrect the older text, revealing a slice of Athenian history in the days after its devastating defeat by Philip II, king of Macedonia and the father of Alexander the Great, Mr. Connor said. "The number of times you get a new text is very small," Mr. Connor, a former professor of classics at Princeton said. "It's like hearing an old violin played at a superb level."

Cecil Wooten, a professor of classics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who attended a Hyperides presentation by Mr. Herrman on Nov. 13, called the discovery "interesting and significant."

"Although Hyperides is a very important fourth-century Greek orator, one of the canon of 10, we have very little of his speeches, and much of that is fragmentary," Professor Wooten said in an e-mail message.

Michael Gargan, a professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, said, "Every bit we get is important." Mr. Gargan, a major scholar on ancient Greek law, noted that Hyperides wrote many speeches and had a leading reputation in antiquity, but only about six of his speeches survive.

"This obviously will contribute a great deal more," he said. "I eagerly await seeing the text."

In one recently discovered speech, Hyperides talks about the number of boats (220) – a number not previously clear – belonging to the Greek side in the Salamis battle, Mr. Judson said. In another speech, after the Battle of Chaeronea, he argues that the tragic defeat was the result of chance, not bad policy. In a political case Hyperides supports the Demosthenes policy that led to the Athenian defeat.

The camera used at the Walters Art Museum to make images of the writing underneath the medieval script.
From the left, William Christens-Barry of Johns Hopkins University and Roger Easton of the Rochester Institute of Technology enter data, as Keith Knox of the Boeing Corporation takes computer images.

"For we chose the noblest policy and we believed it necessary to free the Greeks by taking on the risks ourselves, just like before," Hyperides argues in a passage translated by Mr. Herrman and transcribed by Natalie Tchernetska of Riga, Latvia, a project scholar and specialist in Greek palimpsests, whom Mr. Herrman credits with first identifying the material.

"One must assign the start and the suggestion of every risk to those who make the motion, but the outcome of these things is to be assigned to chance," Hyperides argues in the speech. "Diondas proposes the opposite happen: not that Demosthenes be praised for his policy but that I give a defense because of chance."

Professor Herrman said the material also gives new information about inheritance laws in Athens and suggests a different timing for the Demosthenes case.

Historians had always believed that the trial of Demosthenes took place before the battle of Chaeronea, which Athens lost to the Macedonians, but the newly discovered speech shows that it was after the battle, Mr. Herrman said. "We had no idea of what the content of the trial was," he said. "Now we have an Athenian view of their own defeat."

Mr. Herrman recently visited the Walters, where he was able to look at the small, barely legible pages of the palimpsest under a microscope. He also met with Mr. Noel; Abigail Quandt, the senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books; and specialists in imaging techniques. "Three weeks ago I discovered I can read things in person that I can't get on the digital images," Mr. Herrman said.

Ms. Quandt said she took almost four years to take the palimpsest apart. The day of Mr. Herrman's visit, pages of the text were laid on a table where fiber optic lights on either side revealed aspects of the manuscript. Ultraviolet, strobe and tungsten lights were used to enhance the visibility of the text. After computer processing, the hypertext appeared red, and the prayer book text appeared black.

The palimpsest contains about 120 printed pages of Archimedes text, in addition to the Hyperides material, a philosophical commentary on Aristotle, a neo-Platonic philosophical text, pages from a liturgical book on the life of a saint and at least five pages so well-erased it is impossible to determine what they are, Mr. Noel said.

Most of the palimpsest has been translated, and it will probably be available to scholars by 2008, followed by an exhibition at the museum, Mr. Noel said. The entire list of scholars for the Archimedes Palimpsest project, as well as detailed reports on the finding, can be found at

"This book is the most important palimpsest in the world," Mr. Noel said. "We're learning about the nuts and bolts of ancient medieval history and gaining a new understanding of the early history of the calculus and of our understanding of ancient physics. The prayer book is made up of five other books. Another of these books seems to be an early Christian – second or third century – commentary on ancient views of the soul and why they were incorrect."