A Prayer Book's Secret: Archimedes Lies Beneath The oldest known copy of Archimedes’ work lies hidden under the pages of a 13th century prayer book. For years, scientists and scholars tried to decipher what ancient script they could. Now, new technology is allowing them to look past the prayer book to the wealth of knowledge underneath.
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A Prayer Book's Secret: Archimedes Lies Beneath

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A Prayer Book's Secret: Archimedes Lies Beneath

A Prayer Book's Secret: Archimedes Lies Beneath

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In 1998, a very ratty old book sold for $2�million at an auction. Written on the pages are Christian prayers from the year 1200 and that is not why it cost so much. Underneath the prayers is faint, older writing, theorems and diagrams. The book is the oldest known copy of work by the Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes. This week, scientists are reading it with the help of a giant particle accelerator.

NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.


Archimedes lived around 200 B.C. He's the guy who, legend has it, shouted Eureka in his bathtub, used mirrors to set an enemy ship on fire and invented a pump that lifts water with a screw. Those stories may or may not be true, but he was certainly one of the great mathematicians and physicists of ancient times. Archimedes wrote letters describing his work and copies of about a dozen survive, two in just one place. The Archimedes Palimpsest.

A palimpsest is a manuscript that's been written on more than once and this one resides at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Mr. WILLIAM NOEL (Curator of Rare Books, Walters Art Museum): It's the ugliest thing in the collection. It is also by far the most important text manuscript in a palimpsest that the world knows.

KESTENBAUM: William Noel is curator of rare books at the Walters. His shirt suggests he's a little too busy for ironing. We walk through a dark exhibit room in the museum. He picks up a secret phone - well, it looks that way - and a door opens. We enter a white, brightly lit laboratory. On the table, protected by what looks like plastic wrap, are small, fragile pages. They have been delicately separated from their bindings.

Mr. NOEL: The glue. Blimey, the glue! It took four years to take this book apart.

KESTENBAUM: Noel will not say who owns the book, except that it's someone who's paying to extract every possible word of Archimedes from it. A tough challenge. Some pages, Noel says, are at the point of dissolving into dust.

Mr. NOEL: I mean, you can see worm holes. You can see mold. But you can't see any remains of the original text.

KESTENBAUM: What you see on the surface of the pages has nothing to do with Archimedes. In 1229, probably in Constantinople, someone, a Christian scribe, erased the original text.

Mr. NOEL: The scribe comes along, he's got to save his soul. I'm going to write a prayer book. I don't have enough parchment so I'm going to take the Archimedes text off the shelf, I'm going to undo all the pages, I'm going to scrub and scrape, and scrub and scrape off all the text and them I'm going to write on top of them. And that's what he did. He wrote a prayer book on top of them.

KESTENBAUM: Prayers on the commendation of souls, on the purification of the holy water, prayers for the dead. Seven hundred years go by. In 1906, an alert Danish scholar recognizes the faint Archimedes text. And eight years ago, the book turns up at a Christie's auction. It sold to its present mysterious owner.

Since then, scholars and scientists have been able to retrieve much of the ancient text using ultraviolet light to make the letters stand out. But some pages were too damaged. Others had been covered over with religious paintings. Lots of gold, forgeries to try to make the prayer book look more valuable. The ultraviolet light was not enough.

Mr. NOEL: And the owner of the palimpsest said, this is wonderful but we're not going to read through the forgeries this way, are we? So what are we going to do? And I didn't have a clue what to do.

KESTENBAUM: Enter Uwe Bergmann.

Dr. UWE BERGMANN: (Researcher, Photosynthesis): I'm actually studying photosynthesis, which happens in all plants and also in spinach.

KESTENBAUM: Bergmann was presenting the spinach research at a conference in Germany.

Dr. BERGMANN: Before I was flying back to the U.S., I was staying one night with my parents.

KESTENBAUM: His mother, being his mother, had collected things for him to read before bed and one article in a magazine described the Archimedes Palimpsest.

Dr. BERGMANN: I read that there are still some significant text missing and that there are forgeries and that there's iron in the ink. And I think it was the iron, when I read the word iron I said, wait a second. We are studying iron in spinach.

KESTENBAUM: They were using intense X-rays from a big particle accelerator at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory in California. The technique was capable of detecting iron at the level of a part per million.

Dr. BERGMANN: And so I thought that we should be able to use the same method and just then do imaging with it.

KESTENBAUM: He was excited, told him mom, who said, sure, sure. He emailed William Noel at the museum, who was intrigued and last year they tried it out with a page of the palimpsest. The first pictures emerged on a computer screen, line by line, like they were coming from an old printer. Bergmann says they were stunning.

Dr. BERGMANN: It looked - at the moment it came out, I said, I wish could read ancient Greek because there were just characters, very beautiful-looking characters, all over the place.

KESTENBAUM: Would you say it was a Eureka moment?

Dr. BERGMANN: Yep. Definitely. Plus Archimedes, I mean, he would have really, I'm sure he would have really approved to have a round-shaped synchrotron electron accelerator, you know, of all these fools in the 21st Century trying to decipher his genius. I think he would have approved of that and the feeling that you contribute just a tiny little bit to that, that is just amazing.

KESTENBAUM: Four months ago, the team uncovered new diagrams and text. And the scan revealed something else, the name of the scribe who erased the Archimedes text and wrote prayers overtop. William Noel at the Walters Art Museum says the man signed his handiwork.

Mr. NOEL: It just popped up. It's a guy called Johannes Myronas.

KESTENBAUM: Johannes Myronas, destroyer of ancient text. William Noel says he does not think Myronas, you jerk.

Mr. NOEL: No. I think - I read his name and I think, what a gift he gave us because if he hadn't pulled these ancient texts together and he hadn't given them a sort of Christian disguise, they would have been destroyed another way.

KESTENBAUM: Few things survive for 2,000 years. Governments don't last that long. It was love of math that preserved Archimedes's work for the first millennium and love of God that carried it to the present.

David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

SIEGEL: You can see pictures of the Archimedes Palimpsest and learn more about the techniques scientists used to find the hidden Greek text at our web site, NPR.org.

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