Found Treasure: The Archimedes Palimpsest

Archimedes Palimpsest

Often when we think of found treasure, we imagine a hidden cache of gold which was buried long ago, by either pirates or some other wealthy person, and later rediscovered by someone new.

However, the word treasure can refer to anything holding great worth to a person, and so found treasures come in many forms.  In the case of the found treasure of the Archimedes Palimpsest, it was the discovery of a text thought lost to time and not to exist anymore.

An example of a palimpsest is a manuscript page which has had text erased so that another text can be written upon its surface.  The word palimpsest derives from the Greek palimpsestos, meaning ‘scraped again’.  The ancient Greek practice of writing on wax with a stylus, and then scraping or smoothing the wax to write again gave way to the word.

Today, however, most known palimpsests are found on parchment, which were prepared from animal hides.  The durability of animal hide, and technique to scrape off the top layer of text for writing another, left the former text or ‘underwriting’ sometimes to be visible, and able to be read.

In 1906, after seeing a partial copied underwritten text from a palimpsest in Constantinople, and believing it to be the work of Archimedes, Johan Heiberg, an expert on Archimedes, visited Constantinople where the mysterious manuscript was being held.  He was able to confirm the thirteenth century Byzantine prayer book had utilized pages from previous written works; which included treatises by Archimedes.

The most compelling of these, and believed to have been written around 900 AD, were two treatises, The Method of Mechanical Theorems and of the Stomachion, which are now considered the only known versions of these texts to exist.  Before the discovery of the palimpsest, these were thought lost to history.

Archimedes of Syracuse lived 287 BC – 212 BC.  He was a leading scientist and inventor of his time and considered one of the greatest mathematicians of all time.  His works provided foundations for understanding basic principles better, and were fundamental in developing and furthering progress in the study of mathematics.  All his works are treasures to us today.

The Archimedes Palimpsest was sold at auction in 1998 to an anonymous person for two million dollars.  It was deposited and currently resides at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.  Here it is studied and kept safe from any further damage.  It was realized that since its discovery in Constantinople by Heiberg in 1906, it had experienced some severe harm.

It is unclear how the text ended up in a ‘private French Collection’ to be auctioned off at Christie’s in 1998, and therefore suffered its injury.  Before the sale, the Greek Government claimed the manuscript was stolen and had wished for it to be returned.  However, the owners had stated the Archimedes Palimpsest rightfully belonged to them, and was in their care since the 1920’s.

Some of the damage or changes noticed of the text, from the time Heiberg studied it, to the 1998 auction, were it had suffered from mold, pages were now missing, and some pages were illustrated with images of Evangelists, covering text beneath.  All texts beneath.

Nonetheless, the treasure of the Archimedes Palimpsest is now safe, and is an example of a found treasure.  One never knows where, when, or in what form a found treasure can be realized.  It’s best to always be aware and on the lookout for them!


Best of luck to all you seek.  Treasure the Adventure!



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7 Responses

  1. waterhigh says:

    Unburied treasure. Very cool!

  2. Nate Beck says:

    I didn’t know about this one. So cool was ancient manuscripts are found. Can you imagine how much we would know if the Library at Alexandria had never been destroyed??

    Phenomenal find! Thanks for sharing Jenny 🙂

    • Buckeye Bob says:

      So much lost in time. But I also wonder how much is secretly held (or unknowingly) in private collections.
      A person could have one thing of “value” and never had the resources to add more to their collection in any substantial way, and not know that they held something of the greatest value. Much like the famous paintings underneath another one and no one knew it.

      I’m wondering if there’s anything hidden in my walls right now.
      I’ll be busy for the next few days. lol

  3. pdenver says:

    Thank you for sharing this story, Jenny. I enjoyed it.

  4. JC1117 says:

    Fun story, Jenny. Thanks!

  5. Madesquare says:

    “The Archimedes Codex” is a good read on this subject-

  6. Jenny Kile says:

    Thanks all for the kind comments. It is amazing, and very exciting, to think about what remains lost and is yet to be found. We don’t know how much is lost…or hidden…or as Buckeye Bob mentions, right within our grasp to discover.

    Love the mystery to inspire the search!

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