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

courtesy of the Walters Art Museum
Will Noel, a Walters Art Museum curator in Baltimore, handled its restoration, and co-wrote a book about the Archimedes Palimpsest.
Courtesy of Archimedes Palimpsest Project

This is about an ancient book called The Archimedes Codex, bought for $2.2 million in October, 1998, at an auction in New York City by an anonymous collector who sent it to the Walters Art Museum, here to be restored, conserved, and probed for its content. It was thought to contain mathematical theses conceived by the genius of Syracuse (287-212 BC), whose name it bears, ideas not found anywhere else in the world.

The Walters faced a daunting task: what arrived was a clump of folios, crushed, torn, punctured by worm holes, in the inflexible grip of old carpenter's glue, charred at its edges, and covered with mold and water stains.

It's a miracle it still exists.

It took four years just to remove the glue, and open the book sufficiently to allow experts on ancient Greek texts to access much of its content and, with the help of ultra sophisticated imaging systems, to read it.

"It was an extraordinary adventure to read the thoughts of a guy who lived over 2,000 years ago," says Will Noel, the young curator of ancient books at the Walters and leader of the nine-year restoration effort. Mr. Noel – tall, thin, buoyant, and bespectacled in a Harry Potterish way – adds: "In the field of old books nothing gets more romantic than that."

The Archimedes texts were copied in the 10th century by an unknown scribe in Constantinople, then a major center of the Christian world eventually to become a center of the Islamic world. Three centuries later, another scribe washed, scraped, and otherwise tried to remove the text from the book's parchment. This person undid the book, rebound it in the opposite direction, then, on the imperfectly cleared pages, wrote his Christian prayers in Greek over the original text, which was also in Greek, and still discernible in a faint rust-colored thread running beneath. This procedure was common in medieval times: Parchment was scarce. Thus, the Archimedes Codex became a palimpsest, a twice-used book.

The findings gleaned from it have raised Archimedes's status as a thinker higher than anyone might have expected. Noel describes him as "the most important scientist who ever lived."

Most significant among the discoveries was the knowledge that "Archimedes was the first to calculate with actual infinity in the mathematics of the West." That is to say, he was operating at an intellectual level that didn't become common in the mathematical world until the 17th century, nearly 2,000 years after his time. The Archimedean texts, Noel writes, make the mathematics of Leonardo da Vinci "look like child's play."

"The method," the thesis of premier importance, writes Noel, "survives in the Palimpsest alone ... the Palimpsest is the only physical object in the universe to bear witness to this achievement of Archimedes."

Also found in the palimpsest, and there only, was an Archimedes treatise about an ancient game involving 14 flat pieces of various shapes that fit into a square in an uncountable number of combinations. This game, the Stomachion, possibly invented by Archimedes, reveals the beginnings of the science of combinatorics, which eventually evolved into the science of probability. Noel also regards the treatise on the Stomachion as "a major discovery."

Everyone knows Archimedes was ahead of his time. How far, no one could've imagined. He devised the mathematics for locating the center of gravity of plane figures, like triangles, then in more complicated three-dimensional shapes. He discovered the law of balance: two objects are placed on a plane, one weighing 10 pounds is placed one foot to the right of the fulcrum; the other object, weighing 2 pounds, is placed five feet to the left of the fulcrum. They balance. Why? Because their distances from the fulcrum are reciprocal to the differences in their weight, 5 to 1.

He discovered the law of the lever, based on the same principle, and allegedly boasted that with a lever long enough and a place to stand he could move the earth. No one ever proved him wrong. His mathematics had practical purposes: Engineers have been using Archimedean principles since time immemorial.

• • •

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.

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.

Noel's essays about his pursuit of the palimpsest through the centuries reads like a mix of Indiana Jones (without the punch-ups) and Casablanca (without Ingrid Bergman).

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.

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