The Archimedes Codex unpeeled by modern technological sleuthing
Deciphering latent script on ancient parchment makes curator Will Noel's job an Indiana Jones-style adventure
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Recently a new book came out, also named The Archimedes Codex. It's a history of the palimpsest and a narration of the work done on it so far, written by Noel, and Reviel Netz, of Stanford University, among the many scholars, technicians, and curators who helped rescue the codex.Skip to next paragraph
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The new book recounts how the old book survived wars, floods, fires, and who knows what other cataclysms its thousand years of history exposed it to. It also describes the abuse and mutilation it suffered, mostly during modern times, sometimes for benign but wrong-headed purposes, like the glue; other times for nefarious reasons, like the four forged images of ancient scribes, painted in gold over the Archimedean text within the past 70 years in an attempt to lure buyers.
The codex dodged extinction, abiding in safe collections or languishing in parlous circumstances. In fact, Noel, and film maker John Dean traced its fateful itinerary. They started where the ideas contained in it were conceived, Syracuse, Archimedes's home in Sicily. From there they went to Istanbul (Constantinople), where Archimedes's thoughts were transcribed, certainly not for the first time. They went to St. Sabas Monastery in the Judean Desert, where the codex was kept for 300 years and where 60 folios – a third of its content – disappeared.
It eventually wound up back in Istanbul, then disappeared during the turmoil in Turkey following World War I. World War II found it in Paris, and from there its private owner brought it to New York.
Archimedes was a lonely genius with few contemporaries who understood his ideas. In his letters, Noel finds "a faint note of exasperation. There was no one to write to, no reader good enough." They were yet to be born: "Archimedes would eventually be read by Omar Khayyam, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Newton. He must have known he was writing for posterity."
Noel readily says that the main discovery in the palimpsest, that of Archimedes's stratospheric levels of calculation, produced in him "a fantastic sense of relief: It meant that all we had been doing here was worth it."
Noel was later staggered by the discovery of materials in the codex unconnected to Archimedes. These include commentaries about Aristotle and new information about the naval battle at Salamis in 480 BC, when the Greeks defeated the Persians and won the freedom to pursue their democratic course. The book also contains text about another of the more prominent ancients, the Greek orator Hyperides ("I'd never even heard of him before," Noel admits). He spoke out against the occupation of Athens by the Macedonians, who cut out his tongue before executing him.
And, of course, there are the Christian texts from Byzantine times, which were written over the more ancient texts. The Christian texts included "a blessing for loaves at Easter ... a prayer for repentance ... a prayer of marriage ... a prayer recited at the foundation of a church ... a prayer for the dead."
From the beginning of his experience with the codex, Noel has cultivated a simmering animosity toward the long-dead scribe who defaced the work of the great Archimedes. That changed as the perilous history of the codex was revealed, and Noel began to see the mysterious scribe's work as the very thing that shielded the texts it concealed: "I just grew up, I guess. I realized that had it not been put into this Christian disguise, it would likely have been lost."
On April 14, 1229, the day before Easter Sunday, this "unwitting savior" of the secrets of Archimedes, put down his pen and presented his work to a church in Constantinople.
On April 13, 2002, his identity was retrieved from the chaos and damage of the palimpsest's first page by ultraviolet imaging that enabled scholars to see and read the ancient characters of his name: Ionnes Myronas, a presbyter. He became one of the five people to whom Noel and Netz dedicated their book.