“Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes” on view in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery March 15—June 22, 2014
Press Preview: Friday, March 14, 10 a.m. - noon
Enhanced pseudocolor image of the Archimedes Palimpsest (undertext orientation). Copyright the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Access Rights.*
Updated from Dec. 12, 2013
SAN MARINO, Calif.—The oldest surviving copy of treatises by the great classical mathematician Archimedes will be on view at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in an exhibition that documents how the text was discovered and how new technology was employed to make it legible. The exhibition, “Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” is presented in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery from March 15 to June 22, 2014.
Known as the Archimedes Palimpsest, the manuscript first went on view in 2011 in an exhibition created by the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, whose staff oversaw conservation and research on the text for 12 years before presenting it to the public. The text was purchased in 1998 at auction by an anonymous collector and subsequently loaned to the Walters for conservation, imaging, and transcription.
“Lost and Found” displays 20 leaves from the palimpsest, other manuscripts from the Walters Art Museum, and related objects from The Huntington’s history of science collection and from UCLA that help contextualize the palimpsest. Multimedia displays and other material round out the exhibition, showing the range of conservation and imaging techniques used during the 12-year-long process of discovery.
The Huntington is the only other venue to host the exhibition. “We are delighted to be able to show this rare object and to walk visitors through the meticulous process researchers went through to reveal some of Archimedes’ great works, two of which were hitherto unknown,” said David Zeidberg, the director of the library at The Huntington.
The Great Mathematical Genius of Antiquity
Archimedes lived in Syracuse, Sicily in the third century B.C. and died at the hands of a Roman soldier during the siege of the city in 212 B.C. He is legendary for the feats he is said to have performed in defending the city from the Romans, including using mirrors to direct the sun’s rays and burn the boats of the enemy. A mathematician, physicist, inventor, engineer, and astronomer, Archimedes is considered to be among the world’s greatest classical thinkers, in the company of other great scientists such as Galileo, Newton, and Einstein. Archimedes discovered the principle of Specific Gravity—that different types of things have different densities relative to water. He also discovered the Law of the Lever—that magnitudes are in equilibrium at distances reciprocally proportional to their weights; and he calculated to extraordinary accuracy the value of Pi—the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
Archimedes’ importance is evidenced in the treatises that he wrote, two of which survive only in the Archimedes Palimpsest. By studying these treatises over the last several years, it has been discovered that he calculated with Infinity and that he wrote the first treatise in an important branch of mathematics called Combinatorics, which is concerned with how many answers there are to any given problem.
The Journey of the Palimpsest
In 10th-century Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), an anonymous scribe copied Archimedes’ mathematical treatises in the original Greek onto parchment. Three hundred years later, a Greek Orthodox monk literally recycled the document to use the parchment for another purpose: he erased the Archimedes text, cut the pages along the center fold, rotated the leaves 90 degrees, and folded them in half. The pages were then bound with other erased manuscript leaves to create a prayer book. This recycled book is known as a palimpsest—referring to a piece of writing that has been erased or scraped off to make room for other writing; “palimpsesting” was commonplace hundreds of years ago when parchment and paper were hard to come by.
Over the hundreds of years that followed, successive owners held onto the prayer book, not knowing of the Archimedes underwriting until the late 1800s. It was at that time that Archimedes scholar Johan Ludvig Heiberg saw the book in Istanbul and recognized seven treatises by Archimedes underneath the prayers; he had discovered the oldest surviving source for Archimedes’ writings. He transcribed as much of the text as was possible, and he took photographs, which turned out to be crucial to the ultimate discovery of the significance of the book.
But little is known about what happened to the palimpsest during the 20th century; after Heiberg’s discoveries, it disappeared for decades. What is known is that over these “lost years” some of the pages went missing, mold set in, and illustrations of the Evangelists, forged to look medieval, had been painted on some of the pages. There is some suggestion that a book dealer may have added the illustrations to make the palimpsest more marketable. Eventually, the book, comprising 177 leaves, was put up for auction and sold in 1998.
A Painstaking Process
During the 12 years the Walters Art Museum worked on the text, some 80 scientists and scholars in the fields of conservation, imaging, and classical studies engaged in the painstaking process of discovery.
“It was in horrible condition, having suffered a thousand years of weather, travel, and abuse,” said Will Noel, Archimedes Project Director and then curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum, in a 2011 news release. The text was filthy; it had been singed by fire and dripped on with wax. In fact, before imaging could begin, the manuscript had to be stabilized. It took four years alone simply to disassemble and remove adhesive from the folds, given its fragility.
“I documented everything and saved all of the tiny pieces from the book, including paint chips, parchment fragments, and thread and put them into sleeves so we knew what pages they came from,” said Abigail Quandt, the Walters Art Museum’s senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books.
Once stabilized, the book went through a series of high-tech imaging processes to coax out the ancient text and diagrams. Teams of scientists combined different light sources—ultraviolet light, strobe, and tungsten—to get the job done. Additional imaging, using powerful synchrotron radiation at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory, showed writing that had been hidden beneath religious paintings that had been added in the 20th century.
What Was Discovered in the Palimpsest
The palimpsest contains a copy of a previously unknown Archimedes work, his treatise called The Method of Mechanical Theorems. In it, Archimedes focused on the concept of infinity, showing how the use of infinitesimals could be employed to determine area or volume. His approach was remarkably similar to 17th-century works by Newton and Leibnitz, leading to the invention of calculus.
The manuscript also contains the only surviving copy in the original Greek text of his work On Floating Bodies, as well as the text of his works On The Measurement of the Circle, On the Sphere and the Cylinder, On Spiral Lines, and On the Equilibrium of Planes.
Also found only in the Palimpsest is Archimedes’ Stomachion—among the earliest known mathematical puzzles also known as tangrams. Scientists believe that in it Archimedes was trying to discover how many ways one could recombine 14 pieces of a geometric puzzle and still make a perfect square. The answer is high and counterintuitive—17,152 combinations. This area of study, known as combinatorics, is critical in modern computing.
This exhibition was organized by the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
Molina Healthcare is proud to support “Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes” at The Huntington. Additional support was provided by Scott Jordan, the MacTon Foundation, the Ahmanson Foundation Exhibition and Education Endowment, the Gladys KriebleDelmas Foundation, and Janet and Alan Stanford.
RELATED TO THE EXHIBITION
Archimedes Palimpsest, Vol. I: Catalogue and Commentary
Archimedes Palimpsest, Vol. II: Images and Transcriptions
Reviel Netz (Editor), William Noel (Editor), Natalie Tchernetska (Editor), Nigel Wilson (Editor).
Hardcover: 700 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press (2011)
Available at The Huntington’s Gift Shop, two volumes sold as a set: $250
The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity's Greatest Scientist
Reviel Netz (Author), William Noel (Author)
Hardcover: 342 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Edition (2007)
Available at The Huntington’s Gift Shop, $27.50
April 17 (Thursday) 4:30–6 p.m.
Join David Zeidberg, Avery Director of the Library at The Huntington, for a private tour of the exhibition.
Class Fee: $15. Registration: brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006.
“Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes”
May 22 (Thursday) 7:30 p.m.
Botanical Center, Ahmanson Room
Authors of the book relating to the exhibition, William Noel and Reviel Netz, along with Walters Art Museum conservator Abigail Quandt, speak about the Archimedes project.
Free with admission. Registration: brownpapertickets.com or 800-838-3006.
May 23 (Friday) 8:30 a.m–4:30 p.m.
Botanical Center, Ahmanson Room
Symposium on the Archimedes Palimpsest and related Archimedes science.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: High-resolution digital images available on request for publicity use.]
Thea M. Page, 626-405-2260, firstname.lastname@example.org
Susan Turner-Lowe, 626-405-2147, email@example.com
About The Huntington
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens is a collections-based research and educational institution serving scholars and the general public. More information about The Huntington can be found online at huntington.org.
The Huntington is located at 1151 Oxford Rd., San Marino, Calif., 12 miles from downtown Los Angeles. It is open to the public Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m.; and Saturday, Sunday, and Monday holidays from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Summer hours (Memorial Day through Labor Day) are 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesdays and major holidays. Admission on weekdays: $20 adults, $15 seniors (65+), $12 students (ages 12–18 or with full-time student I.D.), $8 youth (ages 5–11), free for children under 5. Group rate, $11 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission on weekends: $23 adults, $18 seniors, $13 students, $8 youth, free for children under 5. Group rate, $14 per person for groups of 15 or more. Members are admitted free. Admission is free to all visitors on the first Thursday of each month with advance tickets. Information: 626-405-2100 or huntington.org.
The Archimedes Palimpsest photographed in 1999. Copyright the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Access Rights.* John Dean Photographer.
Processed image of the Archimedes Palimpsest, showing the Archimedes text of “Floating Bodies,” as well as a diagram (detail). Copyright the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Access Rights.*
The Archimedes Palimpsest (prayer book orientation). Copyright the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Access Rights.*
Forgery of a medieval illustration of St. John in the Archimedes Palimpsest. Copyright the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, licensed for use under creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Access Rights.*
The Archimedes Palimpsest being disbound. Copyright the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Access Rights.* John Dean Photographer.
The Archimedes Palimpsest in 1998 before disbinding. Copyright the owner of the Archimedes Palimpsest, licensed for use under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported Access Rights.* John Dean Photographer.
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