Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes
Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens
Date Visited: May 26, 2014
For somebody who loves ancient history as much as I do, it is humiliating to admit how little I know about 3rd century BCE scholar and mathematician, Archimedes (284 – 212 BCE).
I had some notion that the man was a scholar. But to me, Archimedes was Merlin’s pet owl in the Disney animated favorite, The Sword in the Stone.
Anyway… I had noticed street posters for a new exhibition at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens – Lost and Found: The Secrets of Archimedes – and hadn’t given it much thought until J suggested we go check it out. And then I expected the exhibition to be a series of historic texts written in Greek or Latin that somehow mentioned the old scholar, but I was pleasantly surprised – astounded really – by the actual focus of this exhibition. Rather than a treatise on the life and times of Archimedes, Lost and Found traces the 1,000-year journey of an Archimedes manuscript.
It is a fascinating journey, to say the least. The manuscript started in a Constantinople monastery in 950 CE, where a medieval scribe copied down the scholar’s ancient texts. The medieval world was fascinated by the ancient one, and transcribing texts was considered a great achievement.
Fast forward 300 years, and this medieval manuscript is palmipsested. Or, recycled, in other words. Early manuscripts were often written on vellum parchment, which was highly valued, and thus, saved and re-used. Creating a palmipsest entailed folding and cutting long manuscript leaves, washing off the original text, writing new text, and then re-bounding in a book format. In 1229, the Archimedes manuscript became a prayer book used at the Saint Sabbas Monastery outside Jerusalem.
And there the manuscript stayed for another 300 years.
In 1844, a biblical scholar studying in Istanbul came across the (now called) Archimedes Palmipsest and somehow managed to bring a page of it back to Europe with him. A few years later, another scholar named John Ludvig Heiberg was studying the wayward page, and he caught sight of the Archimedes text beneath the prayer book writings.
To borrow a phrase from Archimedes…
Anyway, John Ludvig Heiberg studied the entirety of the prayer book, and published his findings in 1907 to much acclaim.
Then, nothing. The Palmipsest disappeared shortly thereafter and did not resurface until 1998 when it appeared on the auction block. It was purchased in the auction by a private collector who then sent it to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for study and conservation.
And it is this journey, from Archimedes manuscript to prayer book to museum artifact that is chronicled in this amazing exhibition. Something like 20 leaves of the palmipsest are on display, highlighting both the original Archimedes text and the later prayer book writings, which are then offset by vignets of the manuscript’s life journey.
One of those fascinating stops on the life story of the Archimedes palmipsest was the lost years between 1907 and 1998. Sometime in that 90 years, a series of medieval manuscript illuminations appeared on some of the pages. Though they were painted to look like art straight out of the Byzantine empire, it was quickly determined they are 20th century forgeries.
First clue? The study of the manuscript in 1906 by Heiberg included photographs of every page. None of the pages had illuminations on them in 1906.
Second clue? One of the chemicals in the illuminations’ paint was manufactured in 1938.
Third clue? The illuminations themselves are exact replicas – and I mean EXACT replicas – of images found in a 1929 text on ancient illuminated manuscripts.
Consensus? A Parisian Jew who is known to have at least come in contact with the Palmipsest in the 1930s may have created the forged illuminations to turn around and sell to the art-obsessed Nazis.
And it was these vignets, these small stories about one particular artifact that proved the most fascinating and the most intriguing to me. I was captivated by the journey of this manuscript and all the history it experienced. All the life this book has seen. The blood, sweat, and tears of the first scribe – the one who dutifully transcribed the Archimedes text in 950CE – and the later monk who re-purposed an old book into a contemporary prayer text for his church’s followers… The journey of this manuscript to Europe, where it somehow came into the hands of a terrified and desperate man, who concocted an incredible plan to save his life. He knew the Nazis wouldn’t want a worn-down, beaten-up, raggedy old text, regardless of how old that text may prove to be. But they would buy art they thought came out of the ancient world.
Now, all of these steps from the manuscript’s life are seen on its tattered leaves. Close study reveals the ancient Archimedes text, tilted at a 90 degree angle due to the re-purposing of the parchment in 1229. The prayer writing still shines, although the type of ink used – iron gall – is corrosive in nature, and therefore, decaying. Mold, tears, clumps of glue – all are still evident on this remarkable text, giving it the life that it has obviously lived.
In that way, I felt a real connection with this text. I am always fascinated by the stories from our history. And always will be. But when I can see those stories right there in front of me? That only makes them all the more real.