Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
Television: Archimedes' Disgusting Document Volume 56 Number 5, September/October 2003
by Mark Rose

The recovery of a tenth-century parchment copy of Archimedes' "On the Method of Mathematical Theorems" is the subject of "Infinite Secrets" (a NOVA production airing on PBS September 30, 8 p.m. ET). It tells how the lost work was scraped and washed clean in the twelfth century for reuse as a prayer book, leaving a palimpsest. Beneath the later text is the only existing copy of the third century B.C. Greek mathematician's work, which contains his final proofs and explanations of his discoveries.

The film traces the palimpsest from Constantinople to a Greek Orthodox monastery in the Judaean desert to the library of the Greek Patriarch in Jerusalem. Eventually it went back to Constantinople, to a branch of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Its importance was recognized there in 1906 by the University of Copenhagen's Johan Heiberg, who had the pages photographed and tried to transcribe Archimedes' writings. His discovery made the front page of The New York Times.

Then the parchment disappeared until 1991, when a Parisian family, which remains anonymous, approached Christie's auction house about selling it, claiming that one of their own bought it in Constantinople in the 1920s. It was auctioned to an anonymous buyer in October 1998 for $2 million.

The new owner delivered the palimpsest to Baltimore's Walters Art Museum, where it has since undergone conservation and image analysis. According to curator William Noel, the palimpsest arrived with burned pages, droplets of candle wax, and purple blotches and perforations from aggressive mold--a "disgusting document."

Dismantling of the modern binding revealed lines of Archimedes' text where the pages met in the center of the book. High-tech imaging is making diagrams and words clear that Heiberg could not see. Of the full text that is now emerging, says Noel, "I like to think of it as his brain in a box." While enjoyable and surprisingly fast-paced, the film is itself a palimpsest, with only partial information in places. The legal claim made on the document by the Orthodox Church and efforts by Greece's minister of culture to acquire it are omitted. Also, we are told that a forger added paintings of the evangelists to the palimpsest and another manuscript recently for sale. These paintings had been copied from a medieval manuscript published in 1929, after the French family claims to have acquired the palimpsest. The film never asks: When and by whom were these paintings added? How are the documents related? There must be a fascinating story in the answers to these questions.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's multimedia reviews.

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America