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With X-Ray Florescence Imaging, New Ability to Read Previously Unknown Mathematical Treatises in Archimedes Palimpsest


May 24, 2005

Media Contact:
Amy Mannarino    
410-547-9000, ext. 277


Baltimore–The Archimedes Palimpsest is considered by many to be the most important scientific manuscript ever sold at auction. It was purchased at a Christie's sale on Oct. 28, 1998, by an anonymous collector for $2,000,000. The collector deposited the Palimpsest at the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, for exhibition, conservation, imaging and scholarly study in 1999. Work has been ongoing ever since.

"The most rewarding part of this project is experiencing the talent and dedication of experts from around the world," said William Noel, curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum. "Scientists and scholars in the fields of conservation, imaging and classical studies are all more than willing to give of their time and expertise to reveal the writings of one of the greatest thinkers the world has ever seen."

The Archimedes Palimpsest contains seven of the Greek mathematician's treatises. Most importantly, it is the only surviving copy of On Floating Bodies in the original Greek, and the unique source for the Method of Mechanical Theorems and Stomachion. The manuscript was written in Constantinople (present day Istanbul) in the 10th century. In the 13th century, the manuscript was taken apart, and the Archimedes text was scraped off. The parchment was reused by a monk who created a prayer book. This process is called palimpsesting. The Archimedes manuscript then effectively disappeared. In 1906, the undertext was recognized by J. L. Heiberg, professor of classics at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, as containing previously unknown works by Archimedes.

Since 1999, intense efforts have been made to retrieve the Archimedes text. Many techniques have been employed. Multispectral imaging, undertaken by researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, has been successful in retrieving about 80% of the text. More recently the project has focused on experimental techniques to retrieve the remaining 20%. One of the most successful of these techniques has proved to be x-ray florescence imaging (XRF). In April 2005, at the EDAX company in New Jersey, XRF was able to reveal the iron in the ink of folio 81r of the Archimedes Palimpsest. This was the first image that allowed scholars to read Archimedes' text underneath a 20th-century forged icon. This month, using one of the most powerful sources of focused electro-magnetic radiation in the world, the Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, which is part of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in California, used a synchrotron x-ray beam to continuously scan the parchment of folio 81r. This has enabled scholars to read large sections of previously hidden text.

The present effort to more fully recover the Archimedes texts is wholly funded by the anonymous owner of the book. The manuscript is conserved by Abigail Quandt of the Walters Art Museum. The project manager is Michael B. Toth of R.B. Toth Associates and the project director is William Noel of the Walters Art Museum.

A publication of the results as well as an exhibition of the Archimedes Palimpsest are being planned for 2008 at the Walters. The Archimedes Palimpsest Web site is and will be updated by Aug. 1, 2005, so that the public can follow the progress that has been made to date.

The scientists who have contributed to its study are:
Roger Easton, Rochester Institute of Technology
Keith Knox, Boeing LTS
William A. Christens-Barry, Johns Hopkins University
Bruce Scruggs, EDAX Inc.
Gene Hall, Rutgers University
Robert Morton, Children of the Middle Waters
Jason Gislason, Children of the Middle Waters
Uwe Bergmann, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center

The principle scholars reading the text are:
Reviel Netz, Department of Classics, Stanford University
Nigel Wilson, Lincoln College, Oxford

Press inquiries should be directed to the Walters Art Museum.