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Eastern Mediterranean

Hunt for Archimedes' Lost Words

by Jane Hughes, 12 July 2000. Updated 13 May 2021

Scientists in upstate New York in 2000 were working to restore a tenth century manuscript which was the only known copy of the writings of the Greek mathematician, Archimedes.

The text was already a copy of a copy of a copy of Archimedes' original manuscript when it was written, probably in Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman empire. Then it was kept in a library in the Holy Lands, probably Jerusalem.

In 1229 a monastery scribe ran short of parchment and recycled Archimedes' treatises and four other books from the library. With a pumice stone and lemon juice or milk, the scribe erased the five books, before cutting them in half, rotating the pages, and writing a prayer book.

The recycling was understandable, according to Walters museum conservator, Abigail Quandt, who was speaking in 2006. Making parchment often required a hundred animal hides for a book, and many monasteries could not afford to keep large herds. By turning Archimedes' work into a Christian prayer text, Quant said, the scribe also may have saved it from the crusaders who repeatedly burned Byzantine libraries.

An anonymous philanthropist paid two million US dollars at auction in 1998 for what was by then a mouldy tome, and loaned it to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

170 pages of brilliance

Scientists at Rochester Institute of Technology in 2000 were using some of the then-latest technology to uncover the original words. The one hundred and seventeen-page manuscript was described by one expert as Archimedes' 'brain in a book'.

The Archimedes book
The mouldy old tome which was discovered to contain some of Archimedes' greatest work

It details several of his ground-breaking ideas, including his theory of the flotation of bodies and theorems which contain the roots of modern calculus and gravitational principles. Archimedes devised his own numerical system and prefigured integral calculus. He calculated a value for pi and was the first to conceive of infinity.

The RIT scientists used digital cameras and ultra-violet and infra-red filters to see through the overwritten material to what remained of the original words and drawings.

The scientists who were involved in the work were hoping that their efforts would persuade the museum in which it was being kept that it should be given the entire manuscript to restore.



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