The Archimedes Palimpsest

Conservator Abigail Quandt and Curator Will Noel are the driving force behind the new Walters Art Museum exhibit "Lost & Found: The Secrets of Archimedes." (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun / October 13, 2011)

Twelve years ago, Walters Art Museum curator Will Noel opened a parcel and discovered what he calls "Archimedes' brain in a box."

Thus began a search for buried treasure — in this case, the lost writings of Archimedes of Syracuse, a famed Greek mathematician and inventor who lived in the third century B.C.

Noel and his boss, museum director Gary Vikan, found a 174-page book made of cured goatskin that was ugly beyond belief. The sheaves were singed around the edges, the text and pages were defaced by water stains, and mold had eaten away entire sections.

Noel began to gently riffle through the pages but stopped when they fell apart in his hands. "It looked as though it had been in a fire, or something had chewed it up," Vikan says. "It made me think of shredded wheat."

Even worse, the manuscript had been washed and scraped away by a medieval monk and written over with prayers (making it a "palimpsest," a document in which the original text has been imperfectly erased and written over.) Only ghostly traces of the original remained.

So Walters assembled two dozen experts worldwide who began to make the nearly invisible visible, aided by technologies being invented as they worked. What they found has changed scholarly understanding not just of ancient mathematics, but also of politics and philosophy in the classical world.

"Lost & Found: The Secrets of Archimedes" opens Sunday at the Walters and runs the rest of the year. The exhibit presents a fascinating modern detective story, as well as a history of the palimpsest populated by heroes and rogues.

"This has been an irrationally exuberant process," says Noel, the Walters' curator of manuscripts and rare books.

"Think of it as a race for survival. On the one hand, Archimedes and the scribes who copied his work are writing as fast as they can. On the other hand, you have the bad guys — war, pestilence, famine, bacteria and neglect.

"Ninety-percent of the time, the bad guys win and the manuscript is lost. We'll never know what's inside. But every now and then, the good guys cross the finish line first."

Archimedes has acquired a pleasantly dotty image over the centuries as the guy who (perhaps apocryphally) leaped from his bathtub after solving a particularly vexing challenge and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting "Eureka!"

Archimedes' legacy extends to mathematical fields as diverse as calculus and computer science. He made groundbreaking discoveries in hydrostatics, which measures the pressure exerted by liquids because of gravity. He invented the catapult, the battering ram, pulleys and siege machines. He was the first person to explain mathematically how levers work. The Archimedes Screw, a mechanical device for raising water, is still used in Third World nations.

But, it wasn't until the scholars visiting the Walters began to decipher the palimpsest that they established Archimedes as the founder of combinatorics, a type of mathematics frequently used in computer coding and game theory.

"The rewriting of history," Noel says, "is a fabulously wonderful and romantic thing."

'Uniquely ugly'

How the palimpsest arrived at the Walters is an improbable story in itself. The small book was auctioned off by Christie's Inc. in 1998 for $2 million, purchased anonymously by a private bidder.

"To you or me, $2 million is a lot of money," Noel says. "But it's cheap for an original manuscript by one of the greatest mathematical minds who ever lived."

But the day before the palimpsest was to be sold, a lawsuit was filed attempting to block the auction, claiming that the manuscript had been stolen from a Jerusalem monastery in the 1920s. Though a federal judge eventually ruled in Christie's favor, not only were other bidders scared off by the scandal, they didn't even try to borrow the palimpsest and decode it.

But Vikan was undeterred.

"Gary is fearless," Noel says.