1000-Years-Old Palimpsest of Archimedes Exhibited at Walters Art Museum

“Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes” is a palimpsest that mostly contains recovered writings of the great Greek mathematician, but it also includes two other recovered texts that have caught the attention of a variety of scholars.

A large portion of these writings exist nowhere else, any other copies having been lost or destroyed long ago.

Considering the Archimedes palimpsest’s filthy, abused condition upon arrival at the Walters in 1999, and its mysterious travels of nearly 800 years, including a stretch in the hands of forgers, it’s a surprise the irreplaceable relic is much of anything. But thanks to more than 10 years of painstaking conservation efforts, the palimpsest is now being exhibited at Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

In 1998, the daughter-in-law of the Parisian collector brought the Archimedes palimpsest, as it had then come to be known, to Christie’s in New York, where it was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer for $2 million. Abigail Quandt, senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters, saw a newspaper photograph of the palimpsest—riddled with mold and bacteria, stained with oil, nibbled on by insects, dripped on by candles—and thought, “I wonder who’s going to have to deal with this.”

Walters. Ms. Quandt was put in charge of preparing the work for digital imaging, which would highlight any remaining traces of Archimedes’s treatises in addition to the small portion identified in 1906. The preparation, however, demanded a level of excruciating care beyond any she had experienced in her 20 years of manuscript conservation. Just removing the binding and separating the 174 fragile folios took four years alone, followed by countless hours of carefully lifting mold and dirt. The worst: Removing the paintings of saints, which lay atop the prayer book writing, which in turn lay atop the Archimedes under-text.

Quite possibly the exhibit will show that history itself may be a kind of palimpsest. “Whether you study philosophy or science or whatever,” Will Noel, curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum says, “the Archimedes palimpsest breaks down boundaries between disciplines. It contains history, philosophy and mathematics, and then all the latest technologies that were applied—the digital imaging, the metadata management—along with all the scholarship. We’d like people to know that because of all these things, history is still being written.”