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College Quarterly
Spring 2013 - Volume 16 Number 2
The Archimedes Palimpsest, 2 vols.
Reviel Netz, William Noel, Natalie Tchernetska, and Nigel Wilson, eds.
New York: Published for the Walters Art Museum by Cambridge University Press, 2011
Reviewed by Evaggelos Vallianatos

One persistent way the Christians showed their hatred for the Olympian gods-worshipping Greeks was the trashing of their books. When the Christians wrote their prayer books, for example, they often wrote them over the deleted texts of Greek books. The resulting “books” are known as palimpsests.

According to the classical scholars, Natalie Tchernetska and Nigel Wilson, there are about a thousand surviving palimpsests in large world libraries like the Vatican Library, the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg, and the St. Catherine’s monastery library in Sinai.

One of those palimpsests contains seven works of Archimedes, including The Method, The Floating Bodies and The Stomachion. This palimpsest ended up in the library of a Greek monastery in Jerusalem. Yet, the fate of the seven treatises of Archimedes, copied in 975 in Constantinople, would be almost worse than death.

In 1229, monks ripped apart seven treatises of Archimedes and other ancient Greek books, folding their large vellum folios to create a Euchologion or prayer book. The monks used orange juice to delete the original writing on the vellum or scraped off the ancient Greek text with a knife and then used the “clean” folios for writing their hymns and prayers, thus manufacturing a cultural nightmare which, in Greek, palimpsest, captures this cultural disaster: creating a book by the violence of rubbing or scraping off again the original writing. In this case, a prayer palimpsest came into being in 1229 after its clerical publishers ravaged the wisdom of Archimedes and other Greeks.

The next thing that happened, three hundred years later in the sixteenth century, is that the Archimedes palimpsest appeared in the St. Sabas monastery in the Judean desert close to Jerusalem. Another 250 years passed in silence and, suddenly, someone took the manuscript and brought it to the Metochion monastery in Constantinople.

In mid-1840s, a German scholar, Constantin Tischendorff, examined the prayer book in the Metochion library in Constantinople and noticed the mathematics under the prayers. Tischendorff left the Metochion library with a folio from the palimpsest. After his death in 1874, the executors of his estate sold this Archimedes fragment and some forty-three additional folios that the “great” Biblical scholar had stolen from Greek manuscripts.

About fifty more years passed and the palimpsest remained untouched in the manuscript and book collection of the Metochion library. Finally, in late 1890s, Athanasios Papadopoulos-Kerameus, a Greek scholar catalogued the Archimedes palimpsest, thus revealing to the world the secret of the prayer book. Perhaps Papadopoulos-Kerameus, who was a secretary of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and then professor at St. Petersburg University in Russia, had something to do with bringing of the Archimedes palimpsest to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Constantinople; yet, incredibly enough, this Greek scholar never thought of taking this unique treasure of Archimedes to Greece. The works of Archimedes left him cold.

But the news of Archimedes in a prayer book touched profoundly another man from Denmark. This was a famous philologist by the name of Johan Ludvig Heiberg. In 1906, tipped off by a German philosopher who had seen the book of Papadopoulos-Kerameus, Heiberg went to Constantinople where he examined the Archimedes palimpsest very carefully.

For the first time since 1229, an expert in classical studies looked at the folios of the prayer book with a magnifying glass, confirming the finding of Papadopoulos-Kerameus that underneath the prayers lay the thought of Archimedes. In the summer of 1906 and 1908, Heiberg transcribed as much of the Archimedes text as he could. Then he took pictures of two-thirds of the folios. Heiberg edited the works of Archimedes, enriching them with the discoveries he made in transcribing the original Archimedes text of the palimpsest, which he called Codex C.

We don’t know what happened to the Archimedes palimpsest after Heiberg studied it and published his findings in his edition of the Archimedes works, which the German publisher Teubner brought out in 1910 and 1915. World War I (1914-1918), and the war between Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s provided the perfect excuse for the continued indifference of the scholarly community for Archimedes and the horrendous treatment of the palimpsest at the hands of its “owners.”

According to Reviel Netz, classics professor at Stanford University, and William Noel, curator of manuscripts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, the worst damage to the Archimedes palimpsest occurred during the twentieth century. They describe a story they stitched together from court documents relating to the legal contest over the “ownership” of the Archimedes book, interviews with art dealers, professors, antiquity thieves and prestigious houses cashing in on the shady trade in stolen treasures.

In the 1920s, Salomon Guerson, a French Jewish merchant in rare carpets and antique tapestries working in Paris, joined Dikran Kelekian, an Armenian dealer of antiquities, in stealing or buying the palimpsest from the monks of the Metochion monastery in Constantinople. Guerson brought the manuscript to Paris where, sometime after 1938, he seriously damaged four of its folios by painting on them pictures of the Evangelists looking like pictures he had seen in Greek manuscripts kept at the National Library of France in Paris. Guerson needed money badly, so he painted the forgeries on the manuscript to make it more attractive to Christian buyers. He sold it to Marie Louis Sirieix, a Frenchman who, after hiding the book in his basement for decades, passed it on to his daughter Anne Guersan who, finally, sold it to an American through Christie’s in New York. 

Netz and Noel, quite by accident, collaborated in the project of taking care of the Archimedes palimpsest that, suddenly, came as a loan for their artistic and scholarly study. An anonymous American bought the Archimedes palimpsest for $2 million when it surfaced in an October 1998 auction. Noel had the admirable insight of convincing this very wealthy man to let the Walters Art Museum exhibit the palimpsest and, above all, use the latest imaging technologies in reading the Archimedes text under the Christian prayers.

The collaboration of Netz and Noel resulted in the 2007 book, The Archimedes Codex, a very interesting and extremely important study 1 about the Archimedes palimpsest and the technological trials, and they were extensive and difficult, in deciphering a manuscript in an appalling state of disintegration and disappearance. For example, Abigail Quandt, a colleague of William Noel at the Walters Art Museum, took four years in just disassembling the folios of the manuscript. Noel documented how imaging experts and classical scholars, following the leads of the Danish philologist Heiberg, managed to decode the hidden Archimedes text.

The Greeks specialized in geometry, the diagram being the main tool of their mathematics. They made advances in number theory, showing that there are an infinite prime numbers. Related to their interest in numbers, they invented combinatorics, counting and figuring out the number of possible solutions to a problem. This study of probabilities rose to a high level under Hipparchos, the greatest Greek astronomer of the second century BCE. Hipparchos also had a decisive influence in the making of the Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s first computer.

Archimedes was the most important player in the probability theory. In fact, one of the three works overwritten in the Christian prayer book, Stomachion” is, according to Netz, the “earliest evidence, anywhere, of the science of combinatorics.” Stomachion was such a difficult game that it triggered a bellyache, hence the name “Stomach.” The challenge was to figure out how many ways one could devise in using fourteen geometrical diagrams to make a square. Archimedes solved this game, but the condition of the “Stomachion” is so bad that it proved impossible to read more than a few lines of Archimedes.

In general, Archimedes measured curves, shaping calculus in the process. He invented combinatorics, which is at the core of our understanding of the theory of probability. These, among many other great mathematical and technological achievements, form the underbelly of computer and imaging science that is, according to Netz, fundamentally, Archimedean. It was that science that helped in the deciphering of the hidden and almost destroyed works of Archimedes.

On behalf of the Walters Art Museum, in 2011, Cambridge University Press published The Archimedes Palimpsest, a grand summary of all that went on in the liberation of the seven treatises of Archimedes overwritten by Christian prayers for some 700 years.

The two volumes of The Archimedes Palimpsest are large, heavy, and beautifully illustrated. They are the result of twelve years of hard work. They shed light for a better and more comprehensive understanding of Archimedes. The owner of the palimpsest spent lots of money. John Lowden, professor of medieval art, Courtauld Institute of Art, and author of a chapter in The Archimedes Palimpsest, said the anonymous buyer of the Archimedes palimpsest funded the studies and preservation of the manuscript with “heroic generosity.” Certainly, his actions mirror Renaissance-like philhellenism as well.

The moment I started going over The Archimedes Palimpsest, looking at the pictures of the pages of the Euxologion and, finally, seeing the images of the transcription of the Archimedes treatises (in the second volume), I knew this was a rare book marking a potent if small Renaissance of Hellenic studies in America. 

The Archimedes Palimpsest is an edited book. The contributors describe lucidly how they penetrated the seven centuries separating us from the monks who trashed the works of Archimedes. They used the latest imaging technologies to reach under the Christian prayers, revealing the “under text,” meaning the words of Archimedes. These experts include:

  1. Uwe Bergmann, senior staff scientist, Linac Coherent Light Source, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory;
  2. William A. Christens-Barry, chief scientist, Equipoise Imaging, LLC;
  3. Roger L. Easton, Jr., professor of imaging science, Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, Rochester Institute of Technology; Doug Emery, independent technical consultant;
  4. Keith Knox, imaging research consultant, Kihei, Hawaii;
  5. Alexander Lee, University of Chicago;
  6. John Lowden, professor of medieval art, Courtauld Institute of Art;
  7. Reviel Netz, professor of classics, Stanford University;
  8. William Noel, curator, the Walters Art Museum;
  9. Erik Petersen, senior researcher, manuscript department, the Royal Library, Copenhagen;
  10. Abigail Quandt, senior conservator, the Walters Art Museum;
  11. Natalie Tchernetska, Biblioteca Classica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg;
  12. Michael B. Toth, president, R. B. Toth Associates;
  13. Nigel Wilson, fellow and tutor (emeritus), Lincoln College, Oxford.

The testimony of these experts is rich in detail and accuracy, giving us a more scholarly and complete story than the story Netz and Noel told urgently in The Archimedes Codex in 2007.

Once the Walters Art Museum had the Euxologion, it immediately turned to Michael Toth, a Pentagon expert on reconnaissance, to head a team of classicists and imaging engineers to study the Archimedes palimpsest. Guided by Uwe Bergmann of the Synchrotron radiation laboratory, Stanford Linear Accelerator, the engineers used x-ray fluorescence and synchrotron radiation for reading the Archimedes text. The imaging of the manuscript ended in 2008.

Nigel Wilson, who had described the palimpsest for Christie’s, invited Reviel Netz and his student, Natalie Tchernetska, for the deciphering of the Archimedes text the engineers’ imaging technologies made available. In fact, Tchernetska hit the nail on the head, discovering a few folios of the palimpsest included two speeches of the fourth-century BCE Athenian orator Hyperides. The monks also “palimpsested” a commentary on the “Categories” of Aristotle.

I was astonished, however, by the efforts of Wilson and Tchernetska in toning down the violence of the idea and practice of palimpsest. They left the impression they and other palimpsest scholars don’t consider the palimpsest practice of Christians unethical, much less odious or anti-Greek. After all, sometimes Christians even palimpsested Christian texts. Parchment was expensive. Economics led the monks to the “recycling” of Greek texts.

Aside from this questionable defense of a dark-age practice—at least, in its destruction of Greek texts—all that went into the conception, research and writing of The Archimedes Palimpsest was outstanding. The technologies of resurrecting the buried Greek text are a model of excellence and originality. The persistence of solving numerous and very difficult technical problems is admirable. I recommend highly this book to both scholars and lovers of Greek culture. It’s full of data, sordid stories and stories of tremendous interest, insight and pleasure.

Netz admitted Codex C was worth it. “Had we know nothing else by Archimedes,” he wrote, “this would have been enough to establish him as the most important scientist of antiquity and the one to come closest to modern science.” Netz is not the first to praise Archimedes. The man was a genius. His most significant achievements were in mathematical physics and calculus. These achievements, Netz says, “proved to be immeasurably important for the scientific revolution.”


1. Reviel Netz and William Noel, The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist (New York: Da Capo Press, 2007).

2. ibid., 260.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is an historian and environmentalist. He is the author of several books, including Poison Spring (forthcoming from Bloomsbury Press). He can be reached at