The Archimedes Palimpsest


Nigel Wilson Scholarly study of the Archimedes Palimpsest began in earnest at the same time that Abigail Quandt began to take the book apart, in April of 2000. The principle scholars on the project at the stage were Nigel Wilson, Reviel Netz, and Natalie Tchernetska. It was clear, even from this early stage, that the book had many secrets to reveal. And here Reviel talks about his early impressions, having studied the partially disbound manuscript. The big question that everybody wanted to know was whether there was more to discover in the book than had already been discovered by the great Johan Ludvig Heiberg, 100 years earlier. Reviel Netz discusses some of the findings concerning the Archimedes manuscript in other pages of the website.

The truly stunning discovery while working on the Archimedes Palimpsest however, was that the manuscript contained other erased texts from the ancient world, texts that were not by Archimedes at all. In 2002 Natalie Tchernetska identified lost speeches by an Attic orator called Hyperides.Hyperides was a contemporary of Demosthenes, and was one of the ten canonical orators of antiquity. However, it was thought that, unlike Demosthenes, the scrolls that contained Hyperides speeches were never copied into manuscript books, and that therefore his speeches were unknown in the Middle Ages. In fact the only direct speeches we had of Hyperides until the year 2000 were papyrus scrolls discovered in thebes in Egypt in the nineteenth century. So it was extraordinary that Natalie found a Hyperides manuscript in the Archimedes palimpsest. It took several years to transcribe the text, and scholars from all over the world helped in its decipherment.

But the Palimpsest had yet to reveal all its secrets. In 2005 Nigel Wilson and Reviel Netz began to decipher yet another text in the manuscript. This turned out to be a second or third century AD Commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.

In conjunction with the exhibition of the Archimedes Palimpsest, which opened at The Walters Art Museum on October 16, 2011, two of an anticipated 5 volumes have been published on the Archimedes Palimpsest by Cambridge University Press. The Archimedes Palimpsest Volume I catalogues the various manuscripts in the Palimpsest, and provides a History of the project to retrieve its texts, a history of the manuscript, its conservation, digitization, and historical importance. The Archimedes Palimpsest Volume two provides images and transcriptions of the unique texts in the manuscript.

Images of the Archimedes Palimpsest, and transcriptions of the unique texts were first published on the internet at on October 28th, 2008. Many additions were made to this set with a second release of the data, schedule for October 28th, 2011.