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Historical Journey of The Archimedes Palimpsest

In 10th-century Constantinople (present day Istanbul), an anonymous scribe copied Archimedes treatises in the original Greek onto parchment. In the 13th century, a monk scraped away the Archimedes text, cut the pages along the center fold, rotated the leaves 90 degrees and folded them in half. The parchment was then recycled to create a Greek Orthodox prayer book. 

This prayer book was found in 1844 in Constantinople by a Biblical scholar during a visit to the Convent of the Holy Sepulcher to look at their manuscripts. He says that he found a palimpsest containing mathematics. He left with a leaf of this manuscript, which was sold to Cambridge University Library in 1876. In 1899, Athanasios Papadopoulos-Kerameus catalogued the manuscripts in the Convent, including the Palimpsest. On a page of the Palimpsest that has since disappeared, it said the book belonged to the Monastery of St. Sabas, which is located about eight miles east of Bethlehem. It was used as a prayer book, and the edges were burned and candle wax was deposited. 

Professor of Classics Johan Ludwig Heiberg rediscovered the erased text at the Convent in 1906. He recognized it as containing previously unknown works by Archimedes. He could not complete his work so he had photographs taken. By studying the book and working from the photographs, he created the new edition of Archimedes’ works upon which all subsequent copies have been based. In 1907 The Archimedes Palimpsest became a world famous manuscript and known to contain foundational documents of western science. 

The Archimedes Palimpsest disappeared in the 1910s or 1920s and ended up in a French collection. The owner, Anne Guersan, said that her father, Marie Louis Sirieux, acquired the book in Constantinople in the 1920s. In 1932, her father-in-law Solomon Guerson, tried selling the palimpsest, and a manuscript curator identified a leaf as Folio 57 of the Archimedes Manuscript. It seems Guerson used leaves from his manuscripts to make elaborate forgeries. Another manuscript from the same convent had also once belonged to Guerson, and it too contains a forgery, based on a picture in the same 1929 publication as the forgery in the Palimpsest.

It is difficult to determine why Guerson would paint forgeries over Archimedes treaties. It may have been made necessary by World War II since Guerson was Jewish and living in Paris at the time of Nazi occupation. The leaves were forged after 1938 as they contain a synthetic pigment called phlalocyanine green, which was only available after that date. Guerson lived until 1970. His daughter-in-law Anne inherited The Archimedes Palimpsest. It took her 28 years to successfully sell the book.

On Oct. 28, 1998, The Archimedes Palimpsest was purchased at a Christie’s New York sale by an anonymous American collector for two million dollars. 

The collector lent the Palimpsest to the Walters Art Museum for conservation, imaging, study and exhibition on January 19, 1999. For over 12 years, more than 80 scientists and scholars in the fields of conservation, imaging and classical studies worked on The Archimedes Palimpsest. Their discoveries are revealed in the exhibition Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes, which will be on view at the Walters from Oct. 16, 2011–Jan. 1, 2012.