Sunday, November 25, 2007

Sunday Salon, November 25, 2007

The Archimedes Codex
Reviel Netz & William Noel

The Archimedes Codex is the story of the conservation and study of a palimpsest. For the general reader, this is probably not the most enthralling premise for a book. For a book person, especially one who cares about ancient literature, it is a bombshell. What the authors of this book and their team have done is re-present several lost texts of the Greek polymath Archimedes and orator Hyperides to the world.

The “ugly” little prayer book which contains these extraordinary texts is a palimpsest. A palimpsest is a parchment book that has been scraped (erased) and reused. In 1229, a monk/scribe named Ioannes Myronas reused the parchment from several manuscripts to copy out the prayer book. Since then the book survived wars, the elements, and neglect to end up in the hands of a private collector who wisely turned it over the Walter Art Gallery in Baltimore for conservation and scholarly attention.

Natz, a Stanford classicist interested in ancient science, and Noel, the curator of manuscripts at the Walters, trade chapters, each explaining the part of the project that they are most familiar with. I would like to look at each author’s contribution separately.

Natz’s description of the significance of Archimedes’ math is very helpful, especially for the non-specialist. What is significant about the findings in the codex is how advanced Archimedes was; he was anticipating the work of Newton and Galileo by almost 2,000 years. Scholars knew Archimedes was an inspiration to the later physicists, but did not understand the true extent of his contribution. Much of his work was lost by the time of Newton. What the codex is showing scholars is a fuller picture of just what Archimedes was capable of. Infinity and probability, two of the most surprising issues that Archimedes tackles in the palimpsested leaves of the codex would elude scholars for hundreds if not thousands of years. One has to question what would have happened to the history of science if Archimedes was widely read in his own day or not ignored in medieval times.

The project to conserve and study the codex was the overall responsibility of Noel. The Walters has an impressive manuscript collection which I have visited several times over the years. Certainly the eye is drawn to the beautifully illuminated examples that grace the collection. The codex is aesthetically “ugly” to use Noel’s words, but significant for the information hidden in its pages. Noel takes the reader through the process of acquisition, conservation, and imaging the codex that will allow it to be read by scholars today and preserve it for future generations. Noel’s explanation of the various imaging techniques is invaluable for the layman.

What is especially fascinating in Noel’s account is the reconstruction of the codex’ providence. There was a real question about the legality of the sale of the manuscript. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Istanbul claimed that the book was stolen, and there is evidence that they did indeed own it at some point. The mechanism of transfer from a religious institution in Istanbul to a private collection in Paris is not satisfactorily explained, perhaps because such an explanation is now impossible. The role of the book dealer Dikran Kelekian, who was supposed to have been involved with the book in Paris in 1931, needs further investigation or explanation at the very least, as does the role of Marie Louis Sirieix; how did he end up with the manuscript from Istanbul?

The Archimedes Codex is a fascinating read. While the book is written for the layman, I believe there is something for the scholar as well. The mathematics of Archimedes is explained in simple language as is the advanced technology used to pull the text from the pages. And what a text it is! Ever since reading Luciano Ganfora’s The Vanished Library, as a young undergraduate, I have been fascinated by what western civilization has lost of its intellectual heritage. Netz and Noel have closed that gap just a little for us and I, for one, am eternally grateful.


Sally Crawford from London said...

Hi, Bill, if I may,

And of course the Web is the palimpsest de nos jours.

PS: I haven't joined the Sunday Salon yet, although wld like to, time permitting, but I thought I'd take a look at the membership. :))

Ann Darnton said...

For anyone who loves books this has to be just the most exciting discovery. The thought of what those pages have 'known' in all sorts of ways just sends shivers up and down my spine. Like you, I'm fascinated (tantalised? anguished?) by the thought of the knowledge that must have been lost over the years. I'm off to our library site now to see if this is available in the UK.

frumiousb said...

It sounds really fascinating. Thanks for telling us about it.