The Archimedes Palimpsest
In the 1840s, Biblical scholar Constantine Tischendorf was examining an ancient codex at a Greek Orthodox monastery in Constantinople. The book contained a liturgical text written in 1229, but beneath the writing, Tischendorf noticed a second text, barely visible and rotated ninety degrees. He took one of the pages with him when he returned to Leipzig which, after his death, was bought by Cambridge University.
Danish historian Johan Ludvig Heiberg recognised the page as a palimpsest, a manuscript which has had its original text removed and the surface re-written with another text. In 1906, he returned to the monastery to examine the original book and found something extraordinary. The original text was a copy of a number of long-lost mathematical works by the Greek polymath, Archimedes.
Archimedes wrote his works during the third century BC. The copy found in the palimpsest was most likely written during the ninth or tenth century AD, at the height of the Byzantine empire. During the thirteenth century, the parchment was scraped, washed and folded in half to form a book, then re-written with the liturgical text.After Heiberg’s examination, the codex vanished for ninety years. In 1998, it was sold at auction to an unknown buyer who made it available for analysis. The codex was in bad shape; mold had caused some damage, some pages had been defaced and the pages containing the Archimedes text had been removed.
Despite all this, in 2002 advanced imaging techniques revealed a new secret of the Archimedes palimpsest. At least six other parchments had been re-used to make the book. It now emerged that one contained previously unknown speeches of the fourth century BC orator Hyperides. These are the only surviving writings by Hyperides.
In 2007, another work from the palimpsest was imaged and identified as a previously unknown commentary on Aristotle’s Categories, written by Alexander of Aphrodisias early in the third century AD.
The palimpsest’s remaining contents are yet to be uncovered.
The Novgorod Codex
When Hamlet said to his father’s ghost:
Yea, from the table of my memory, I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records
the table he was talking about wasn’t the four-legged variety. Sometimes described as an ancient iPad, it was actually a rewritable stylus or tablet. The wax-covered variety could be edited using a tool or the whole surface erased by heating to 50°C (giving rise to the phrase tabula rasa).
The Novgorod codex was excavated from the Russian city of Novgorod in 2000. A three-page book of wax tablets, it was in use around 1000 AD. Unlike, the Archimedes palimpsest which contains one text underlying a second text, the Novgorod codex contains hundreds of overwritten texts, each one partially erased before the next was applied, creating a hyper-palimpsest.
The mostly religious contents of the Novgorod codex don’t carry the same weight as the Archimedes palimpsest. However, they provide an insight into a time of religious upheaval when Christianity was making early headway into pagan areas of Russia whilst simultaneously trying to suppress heretical Christian offshoots.