Sunday, November 26, 2006

Archimedes Palimpsest

From tomorrow's New York Times:

An ambitious international project to decipher 1,000-year-old moldy pages is yielding new clues about ancient Greece as seen through the eyes of Hyperides, an important Athenian orator and politician from the fourth century B.C. What is slowly coming to light, scholars say, represents the most significant discovery of Hyperides text since 1891, illuminating some fascinating, time-shrouded insights into Athenian law and social history.

"This helps to fill in critical moments in ancient classical Greece," said William Noel, the curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum here and the director of the Archimedes Palimpsest project. Hyperides "is one of the great foundational figures of Greek democracy and the golden age of Athenian democracy, the foundational democracy of all democracy."

The Archimedes Palimpsest, sold at auction at Christie's for $2 million in 1998, is best known for containing some of the oldest copies of work by the great Greek mathematician who gives the manuscript its name. But there is more to the palimpsest than Archimedes' work, including 10 pages of Hyperides, offering tantalizing and fresh insights into the critical battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., in which the Greeks defeated the Persians, and the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., which spelled the beginning of the end of Greek democracy.

The palimpsest is believed to have been created by Byzantine monks in the 13th century, probably in Constantinople. As was the practice then, the durable and valuable vellum pages of several older texts were washed and scraped, to remove their writing, and then used for a medieval prayer book. The pages of the older books became the sheaths of a newer one, thus a palimpsest (which is pronounced PAL-imp-sest and is Greek for "rubbed again").
A Layered Look Reveals Ancient Greek Texts (New York Times, registration required)

Archimedes Palimpsest (

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