Re: [HM] Archimedes Palimpsest

Michael Lambrou (LAMBROU@talos.cc.uch.gr)
Tue, 6 Jul 1999 14:40:41 +0300 (MET-DST)

The LIST has recently received news that an extremely valuable manuscript of
Archimedes is on display at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. The work
is the celebrated tenth century Byzantine palimpsest containing several
works of Archimedes, including the only surviving copy of 'The Method'.
After it had been almost inaccessible for 1000 years, the manuscript was
auctioned by Christies in New York, on October 29th 1998. It fetched
2 000 000 US dollars (plus another 202 500 in premium), exceeding by far
the estimated price of 800 000 to 1 200 000 dollars. The private buyer is
kind enough to lend it for the current public display.

For years, many people, myself included, have been trying to locate the
manuscript, which disappeared in the early twenties under circumstances
that are not clear, at least to me. Many rumours have circulated about the
manuscript but, as I wish to investigate it as a historian, I am writing
this note for the LIST. My aim is to ask the members for their information
on the issue and so, ultimately, record facts rather than just rumours.

Let me, however, start from the beginning by giving a brief summary of some
well-known facts. This gives me the opportunity to narrate fascinating facts
surrounding the manuscript but it also enables me to connect them with the
period from the early twenties to 29th October 1998.

About this period little is known. When the manuscript re-emerged in 1998
after having been kept completely hidden for more than 75 years, it was
offered for sale and many newspapers picked-up the story. However, every
account I read bypassed the crucial period so swiftly, that it gave the
impression that there was some disorder. In any case the accounts, being
fragmentary, were unsatisfactory to the inquisitive mind. So, fellow LIST
members, please help me dispel rumours for the sake of verifiable facts.
This is what I have to say.

1) A Byzantine Greek copied the manuscript onto parchment, from an older
original, in the 10th century. It is not known who commissioned the new
copy. Recall, however, that the century preceding the commission saw a
revival of interest in classical science in the Byzantine Empire. For
example it is known that Leo the Mathematician (790-869 AD), who restored
the University of Constantinople, transcribed an ancient text of Archimedes
from majuscule to minuscule (that is, from the ancient way of writing in
upper case letters, to the current and still used lower case). This copy of
Leo was the archetype of all Archimedean manuscripts that circulated in the
West during Renaissance. In particular, Georgius Vallas' celebrated copy
derived from it, as did his translation of various excerpts: For more on
this topic see Heath, 'History of Greek Mathematics', vol. 2, pages 25-26.

2) At a later stage, perhaps on the 13th or 14th century, the text of the
manuscript was scraped and replaced by a liturgical text. The practice of
re-scraping a parchment to re-write on it was not uncommon in the days
before the use of paper in the West, whenever there was an extreme shortage
of writing material. Such re-scraped manuscripts are called 'Palimpsests'.
The word derives from Greek roots palin = again (like in 'palin-drome') and
the verb psao = to scrap. We get palin+psao = palimpsest = the one that has
been scraped again. (The 'n' in 'palin' changes to an 'm' before the 'p' for
grammatical reasons as for example syn = together + phoni = voice, gives
syMphony. Similarly, syn+pathos=sympathy). Fortunately in the case of
Archimedes' palimpsest, the mathematical text below is, with difficulty of
course, in most parts readable.

3) The manuscript was carried at some unknown date to the Greek Orthodox
monastery of Saint Savvas near Jerusalem. In the middle of the 19th century
it was transferred to the excellent library of the Greek Patriarchate in
Jerusalem and from there to yet another monastery, that of the Holy
Sepulchre, near by.

4) From the Holy Sepulchre it was transferred to its smaller branch (the
proper word is 'Metochion') in Constantinople. (Recall that Constantinople
was the capital of the Byzantine Empire before its fall to the Ottomans in
1453, and is the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church, in much the same way
that Rome is for the Catholic.) In this last place it was catalogued and
described by the Greek scholar Papadopoulos-Kerameus at the end of last
century. He in fact catalogued a total of 890 manuscripts that belonged to
the same collection.

5) The first modern scholar to spot the Archimedean manuscript (but not
realising its author) was, half a century earlier than
Papadopoulos-Kerameus, the great German scholar Constantine Tischendorf,
in 1846, who saw it during one of his travels to Greek monastic libraries.
Unfortunately Tischendorf 'kept' for himself one leaf of the manuscript.
Today this leaf is missing from the manuscript sold for 2 000 000 and has
been identified by Wilson as an extract from Archimedes' 'On the Sphere and
the Cylinder'.
Fortunately the leaf is not lost. Together with 43 other leafs (from as
numerous manuscripts) that Tischendorf also kept for himself, it was sold in
1876 by his heirs to Cambridge University Library. Easterling's catalogue
'Hand-list of the additional Greek manuscripts in the University Library,
Cambridge' printed in Scriptorum, vol. 16, 1962, pages 302-323, lists the
missing leaf as 'Additional 1879.23', but there is no mention that it was
by Archimedes. (Wilson's identification came in 1983).

6) Since I implied that in all probability Tischendorf stole the 44 leafs,
I ought to digress on another of Tischendorf's activities, verifiable this
time, which casts a shadow on his otherwise good name.
There can be no doubt that Tischendorf was a great classical and biblical
scholar, who discovered and edited many important manuscripts by onsite
visits, in the middle of last century. But he also did underdealings that
defamed him. The most notorious one is his discovery at Saint Catherine's
Greek Orthodox monastery in Sinai of one of the two most important surviving
ancient Greek texts of the Bible, the celebrated 'Codex Sinaiticus', of the
4th century AD. This codex is now on display in a prominent position at the
British Library in London, next to the equally famous 'Codex Alexandrinus'.
The British Library is unquestionably the legal owner of both codices, but
a lot of shaky affairs surround the earlier story of Codex Sinaiticus, when
Tishendorf 'borrowed' it from Saint Catherine's monastery, on behalf of the
Russian Tsar. The story is too long to narrate here but I highly recommend
the masterful article by I. Sevcenko, 'New documents on Constantine
Tischendorf and the Codex Sinaiticus' in Scriptorum, vol. 18, 1964, pages
55-80, which is thorough and exhaustive. It is tempting to repeat here a
paragraph from Sevcenko:
'Tischendorf appears as a brilliant, erudite, quick-minded, devoted,
resourceful person, but also as a vain, cantankerous and, on occasion,
unfair man. For years he was caught up in the trap which he had helped to
spring by his acts of 1859 and 1862; he was released from it in 1869 by
hands more experienced than his own and, incidentally, more interested in
securing a treasure for Russia than saving a German professor's honour.'
Anyway, the dispute was defused when the Bishop Callistratus of Sinai, in
a gallant act, finally donated the Codex to the Tsar, who then became its
undisputed legal owner. (Ultimately Codex Sinaiticus was sold, in the
1930's, to its present owner, the British Library.)

7) It is time to return to the Palimpsest. Guided by Papadopoulos-Kerameus'
catalogue, the great Danish scholar Heiberg visited Constantinople in 1906
and 1908, where he examined the manuscript, transcribed it and published it.
>From this stems his valuable critical edition of Archimedes' works,
published by Teubner in 1910-1915. After that, the manuscript remained
untouched, to disappear in the 1920's until its re-emergence in 1998. It is
this period of disappearance that I wish to relate now and which provoked
the present note.

8) The beginning of this century was a time of great turmoil in the Balkan
Peninsula. It saw the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire and continuous wars
between neighbours. It is then that the modern state of Turkey emerged, not
least through the efforts of Turkey's father figure and national hero, Kemal
Ataturk. For Turkey these were golden pages in its history. On the other
hand political events were devastating to others. For example the Armenians
maintain (and I believe that most historians agree) that in 1916 more than 1
000 000 of their peoples were massacred. In a disastrous war of Greece, in
1922, against Turkey, 1.6 million ethnic Greeks living in Asia Minor had to
seek refuge in mainland Greece, after a massive exchange of population,
death and destruction:
The history of the events in the 1910's and 1920's is too complicated to
narrate here nor can there be agreement in the assessment of facts. Please
fellow LIST members, do not criticise me for the simplified summary above.
I tried to be impartial and merely included it to build the framework so my
NEXT paragraph is understood, especially by people who are not acquainted
with events in this part of the world.

9) Constantinople, which had been (and still is) for 17 centuries the chair
of the Greek Orthodox Church is, of course, the modern and flourishing town
of Istanbul in Turkey. (For the un-acquainted: Yes, the chair of the Greek
Church is in Turkey, peacefully cohabitating now a days). But in the chaotic
situation in Asia Minor of the 1922, everybody was running to save his head.
It seems that around that time (precisely when is unknown to me) the 890
manuscripts described by Papadopoulos-Kerameus above (see 4) were
transferred to the National Library of Greece, in Athens, in an effort to
save national heritage from hostile circumstances.
Not all manuscripts, however, had the same fate. For example the Archimedean
Palimpsest disappeared (more on this below) only to be revealed three
quarters of a century later that all this time it had been in the hands a
'French collector', who deemed wise to deny it from humanity. Another 52
manuscripts also failed to reach their Athenian destination, but some
surfaced elsewhere.

10) * Number 370 in Papadopoulos-Kerameus' catalogue is now in Biblitheque
Nationale in Paris (with the new identity 'supplement grec 1317'),
* Number 634 in Papadopoulos-Kerameus' catalogue is now in the Museum of
Arts in Cleveland (as 'MS 42.152'),
* Number 727 in Papadopoulos-Kerameus' catalogue is now in the Library of
University of Chicago (as 'MS 129').
Fellow LIST members, does any one of you know how the above manuscripts
reached the aforementioned libraries? I have not had time to find out, but I
would appreciate the information.

11) How exactly the Archimedean Palimpsest passed to the 'French collector'
who kept it a secret for so long, denying it from humanity, is unknown to
me. For years now many rumours have been circulating on this and the
subsequent fate of the manuscript. Below I shall mention some (no names
however) and it is here that I wish the LIST's help. Are the stories founded
on facts? Did the 'French collector' acquire the manuscript by legal means?
Were they moral too? Did he take advantage during the chaos of the 1922 war?
These are unanswered questions.

12) It is worth mentioning the following facts: Before the auction date, the
Greek Government and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem (the owner
of the manuscript before its disappearance) challenged the vendor for
illegal possession and approached Christies claiming back the Palimpsest.
Christies maintained it had evidence that the 'French collector' was the
legal owner. At the same time, through its representative in Greece,
Christies offered to sell the manuscript directly, outside the auction
house, for 400 000 dollars (half the lower estimate of the auction price,
one fifth of the final price). All this was headline news in Greece, at the
time, as are all issues that concern the drainage of its heritage and
treasures. The offer was declined as pointless to pay for something that 'is
ours anyway'. Thus the Patriarchate took Christies to court, in New York
(the place of the auction), to block the sale. The court, although in New
York, had to be according to French laws as the owner (an heir of the
original 'French collector') was French. If I have the story right,
Christies gave evidence that the 'French collector' possessed the manuscript
for more than 75 years (I make it 76 since the 1922 war) and so, according
to French laws, the manuscript is now his (and I happen to have heard
'hers') however it was acquired. It also said that the 'French collector'
bought the palimpsest in the early twenties from a monk. (Newspapers did not
mention the issue, prevented by legal reasons, as I am told). Lawyers can
sort this out and it is not my concern here. The sale went on, as we all
know. In fact the Greek government decided to bid for the manuscript anyway
(so 'it returns to its natural place, one way or another') and resolve the
rest of the legal battle later. It raised about double the auction estimate,
by enthusiastic donations of many Institutions. Yet the money was not
enough, and the manuscript finally went to its present owner, who wishes to
remain anonymous. Upon completion of the sale, the last promised that he
would not keep the manuscript away from humanity, a promise that he
evidently honours by lending it for public display, in a prominent place.

13) It is tempting to say some of the rumours I heard (continuously, for
several years now and from many independent sources) whenever I tried to
locate the manuscript prior to its re-emergence in 1998: Readers please help
me come to facts.
I was told that the inheritor, a French Lady, of the 'French collector' who
had the palimpsest in her possession, repeatedly tried to sell the
manuscript at what was considered an exorbitant price (well in the end she
got more!). She, so the story goes, approached various libraries, including
reputable ones in the USA, offering the manuscript. They all declined either
because the price was high or because the ownership papers were not crystal
clear. (It is to their credit that when the auction was on, they did not bid
for it, respecting the Greek government's wish to regain a treasure it lost
under painful and unclear conditions).
I do not know how true these stories are, but I am satisfied that they are
by and large in the right direction (of course I am speaking from a gut
feeling: historical facts need better that that!). Can I be assured? Can the
librarians that had the experience come forward? Why should the story of one
of the most important mathematical manuscripts by one of the greatest
mathematicians of all times, remain secret?

Epilogue:

Had the great master resurrected today to investigate the fate between the
early twenties and 1998 of his work, he would certainly say (to quote a line
from his 'Method'): 'I do no small service to mathematics'. He would exclaim
with passion 'give me somewhere to stand and I will move the earth' to find
the truth. Well, fellow readers, let him exclaim EUREKA.

Michael Lambrou
Department of Mathematics
University of Crete
Iraklion 71409
Greece

e-mail: LAMBROU@TALOS.CC.UCH.GR