Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes

Mar. 15, 2014Jun. 23, 2014
MaryLou and George Boone Gallery

New Exhibition Reveals “The Secrets of Archimedes”


In 1932, The Huntington’s curator of manuscripts, Reginald Haselden, received a letter from Harold Willoughby at the University of Chicago, who had enclosed one of four illuminated manuscript leaves that an antiquities dealer was offering for sale. Asked for his opinion, Haselden examined the manuscript closely and observed faint text beneath the painted illumination. After further research, he returned the leaf to Willoughby and shared what he’d learned. “I am glad I was able to run it down,” Haselden wrote. “I had a suspicion it might be Archimedes.”  READ ON

Video - Turning Pages of the Archimedes Palimpsest

In this short video clip Abigail Quandt, Senior Conservator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at The Walters Art Museum, turns some pages of the book. It might surprise some people that Abigail is not wearing gloves. Actually it makes conservation sense. Her clean hands do no damage to the parchment and she can be more sensitive to the fragile folios if she is not wearing anything on them.

Watch the video


Neither The Huntington nor the University of Chicago opted to acquire the manuscript; its illuminations appeared to be forgeries and its ownership was dubious. The manuscript dropped out of sight until the 1990s, when it was offered for sale at Christie’s auction house in New York. The private collector who purchased it then deposited it at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore with the intention of having it conserved, digitally imaged, and—most importantly—read.

The incredible story of what happened next is told in the exhibition “Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes,” on view March 15 through June 22 in the MaryLou and George Boone Gallery. Organized by the Walters, the exhibition is the result of more than a decade of extraordinary physical and scholarly work that revealed the oldest surviving manuscript of the Greek mathematician’s most important treatises, including two hitherto unknown texts. Those texts had all but vanished, victims of an act of Medieval “recycling.”

Archimedes lived in the third century B.C., but our story begins in 10th-century Constantinople, where an anonymous scribe copied Archimedes’ treatises onto parchment. Three centuries later, a monk in need of parchment erased the Archimedes text and then cut and refolded the leaves to create a Greek Orthodox prayer book. This process of reuse is called palimpsesting; the resulting work is a palimpsest. In the early 20th century, a scholar named Johan Ludvig Heiberg discovered the manuscript and transcribed as much of the underlying text as he could. He published his findings in an academic journal—one of the sources consulted by Haselden in 1932.

Fast-forward to 1999 when the Archimedes Palimpsest went to the Walters, where a team of researchers undertook a lengthy project of attempting to read the complete erased texts. The process involved four years of painstaking conservation, the use of state-of-the-art imaging techniques, and the expertise of more than 80 specialists. Will Noel, the Walters’ curator of manuscripts at the time, noted that what scholars ultimately found “fundamentally reinterpreted key treatises by Archimedes, important passages of which we were able to decipher for the first time.” The greatest discoveries were two previously unknown texts: Method, which proposed the concept of calculating with infinity, and Stomachion, which may be the earliest work in the field of combinatorics, the heart of modern computer science.

Noel speculates that if the treatises in the 10th–century manuscript had not been palimpsested into the religious prayer book, they might never have survived at all—which could make the Archimedes Palimpsest the most important story in the history of science in our time.

Video - The History of the Archimedes Manuscript

Watch the video (courtesy of The Walters Art Museum)

Related to the Exhibition

Archimedes Palimpsest, Vol. I: Catalogue and Commentary
Archimedes Palimpsest, Vol. II: Images and Transcriptions
Reviel Netz, William Noel, Natalie Tchernetska, Nigel Wilson (Editors); 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, William Noel (Authors); Hardcover: 342 pages; Publisher: Da Capo Press; First Edition (2007).
Available at The Huntington’s Gift Shop, $27.50

Lectures and conferences
Will Noel, RevielNetz, and Walters Art Museum conservator Abigail Quandt discuss the Archimedes project in a free lecture on May 22 at 7:30 p.m. A one-day conference on the topic will be held the following day. E-mail: [email protected]  for conference details.

Related exhibition
“A Place to Stand: Archimedes and the Recovery of Greek Mathematics” will be on view at Caltech from March 31 to July 31 in Parsons-Gates Hall. Information: 626-395-2702.