Archimedes is, along with Newton and Einstein, one of the three wise men of mathematics. Academics have had access to works for hundreds of years. But his most interesting work, the Method Of Mechanical Theorems, remained unknown until the beginning of the twentieth century. Its existence was first discovered in 1906 by Danish scholar Johan Ludvig Heiberg, who came across a reference to “some mathematics in a palimpsest” while looking through a catalog of manuscripts that were being kept at the Metochion of the Holy Sepulchre in Constantinople.
A palimpsest is an ancient parchment that has been cleaned of its text and written on a second time, though faint traces of the original can remain. The manuscript that would become the Archimedes palimpsest was a centuries-old copy of Archimedes' original work, probably written by a scribe in the late tenth century in Constantinople. The writer appears to have used ink made from nutgalls, the bulbous growths on the leaves and twigs of oak and pistachio trees. Nutgalls arc rich in tannic acid, which chews into the parchment fibers and leaves a physical trace of the writing process that remains even when the ink itself is erased.
In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople was burned and tooted extensively, but the manuscript miraculously survived. However, with parchment in short supply, it was quickly requisitioned b by the Greek Orthodox Church for recycling into a prayer book. A monk probably used a sponge dipped in orange juice to remove the ink, and lime to dry the parchment, then scraped it with an instrument to render the pages almost completely blank. Ironically, the reuse of the parchment as a religious text brought with it the protection of the Church, thus ensuring the survival of the Archimedes text for the next 700 years.
After World War I, the Greek government arranged for the entire manuscript collection of the Metochion to be smuggled back to Athens. But along the way, several of the manuscripts, possibly sold off by unscrupulous officials, went astray and later surfaced in
Europe and America. The Archimedes palimpsest ended up in the hands of a Paris art collector. When he died in 1956, it passed to his children. In 1996, they handed it over to Christie's in New York, where it was sold two years later to a wealthy American collector. William Noel, the curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, heard of the sale and contacted the owner to arrange a loan for exhibition purposes. When he saw the condition of the palimpsest, he realized that it was a race against time to recover the original Greek text.
Using the technology employed to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls together with software for analyzing satellite photograph scientists at the Walters Art Museum have managed to enhance the original writings and block out the later text. That a reliable record of Archimedes' theories and diagrams could have survived unknown for more than 2,000 years is extraordinary. Reviel Netz, assistant professor of classics at Stanford University, argues that the discovery of the Method has rewritten “not only the history of mathematics, but intellectual history in general.”