Revolutionary? Authentic? Stolen? The Story of the Archimedes Manuscript

For 2,000 years, the document written by one of antiquity's greatest mathematicians was ill treated, torn apart and allowed to decay. Now, US historians have decoded the Archimedes book. But is it really new?


When the Romans advanced to Sicily in the Second Punic War and finally captured the proud city of Syracuse, one of their soldiers met an old man who, surrounded by the din of battle, was calmly drawing geometric figures in the sand. "Do not disturb my circles," the eccentric old man called out. The legionnaire killed him with his sword.

That, at least, is the legend.

The truth is a different story altogether. Placed in charge of King Hieron II's artillery equipment, Archimedes later played an important military role during the siege of Syracuse. He invented powerful catapults to defend his homeland, using cranes to hurl heavy boulders from the walls of the fortress at enemy ships. Mirrors were also used, it is said, to direct burning rays of sunlight at the Roman armada, setting the ships on fire. The Sicilians resisted the onslaught of the ambitious Roman republic for more than two years.

In short, had the legionnaire really speared the eccentric old man with his sword, he would have done the Romans a great service. In addition to being an oddball scholar, Archimedes was a skilled inventor of weapons.

How Many Grains of Sand

He was so skilled, in fact, that it almost seemed that he could stop Rome's large army single-handedly. But in the end Archimedes fell victim to brute force after all. One of the greatest inventors of all time, Archimedes was killed at the age of 73. His murder, notes British philosopher Paul Strathern, was "the Romans' only decisive contribution to mathematics."

Archimedes prepared the way for integral calculus and approximated the number Pi. He discovered the law of leverage and invented new formulas to calculate the properties of cylinders and spheres. He once yelled "Eureka" while bathing, after having dreamed up the concept of specific weight while splashing around. He even specified the number of grains of sand that could fit into the universe: 1063. Until then the Greeks had merely left it at a "myriad" (or 10,000).

"It took almost 2,000 years before anyone else could hold a candle to him," Strathern says about this extraordinary man, who lived from 285 to 212 B.C. But brilliance had its drawbacks. Archimedes was often so engrossed in thought that he would forget to eat -- and he bathed infrequently. But aside from that, researchers know little about this oddball from the early days of geometry and mechanics. Unfortunately many of his writings were lost, while the rest have been handed down in the form of Arabic and Latin copies. Vandals destroyed his famous planetarium, with its water-powered wheelworks.

But now a Greek original has been discovered after all. In "The Archimedes Codex," recently published in English, two US researchers describe the decoding of a manuscript from the early days of mathematics. It took the authors years of painstaking work to "extract the secrets from these faded letters."

Old Manuscript for $2.2 Million

The Beck publishing house, which will first publish the German edition on Sept. 17, is also heavily promoting the book. With a scheduled initial printing of 20,000 copies, Beck is advertising the book as an "important work." "Our scientific view of the world is turned upside down," the publisher raves in the press release.

The fuss revolves around a manuscript that caused an uproar once before, in October 1998, when a fragile, handwritten manuscript with mold spots and blackened edges was offered for sale in an auction at Christie's in New York. After a contentious bidding war, the auctioneer's hammer fell at a price of $2.2 million.

An anonymous "billionaire from the computer industry" had apparently purchased the rare work. But who was it? Neither the auction house nor the new owner was willing to answer that question. Insiders are now certain that it was Jeffrey Bezos, the founder and CEO of online book retailer Amazon.

The cloak-and-dagger operation makes sense, given the dark suspicions attached to the Archimedes manuscript. Legal papers suggest that the wood-bound math tome was stolen in the Middle East. The Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem has gone to court twice, both times unsuccessfully, in an effort to gain control over the document. But the conflict continues to simmer.

At least the wealthy US buyer was accommodating enough to lend the manuscript to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. As a museum employee recalls, "Mr. B." carried the booklover's gem in a "blue bag" up the marble staircase and into the columned foyer of the building, which is built in the style of a Genovese Renaissance palace.

The loan has triggered a flurry of excitement at the Walters, which also features Egyptian funeral papyrus and Napoleon's diaries in its collection. Greek scholars, physicists and digital photographers are attempting to decode the tattered work. According to curator William Noel, the work is "not much bigger than a box of sugar cubes" and consists of 174 "rigid and warped" pages. "The book," says Noel, "was on the verge of disintegrating."

Bombarded with X-Rays

Part of the problem lies in the fact that the parchment is a palimpsest (from the Greek: scrape clean again). The texts, formulas and drawings by Archimedes, executed in brown ink, were erased in the Middle Ages and overwritten with a religious text. Specialists at the museum irradiated the pages, made of goat leather, with UV light. Then they were bombarded with X-rays in the particle accelerator at Stanford University to bring out the traces of iron in the Byzantine ink. NASA experts were also involved in analyzing the work.

What, if any, are the fruits of all this labor? Has it revealed Archimedes "in a completely new light," as the Beck publishing house has proclaimed? Absolutely not.

The US researchers certainly discovered a few exciting details. For example, they managed to correctly interpret the "Stomachion," a document that until now existed only in the form of a fragment in Arabic. The title of this treatise on numbers is the name of a children's game Archimedes invented, but it can also signify the beginning of combinatorics.

The researchers were also able to determine the source of the handwriting. A scribe at the court of the emperor of Byzantium apparently wrote the parchment manuscript around 950 A.D. He used various older mathematics books by Archimedes and selected seven important treatises, which he copied.

But science eventually took a turn for the worse in the Byzantine Empire. In 1229, a monk picked up the primer on mathematics, not to study it but to recycle its valuable pages made of animal hide. Using a sponge and lemon juice, he rubbed off the ink. Then he cut the cleaned pages in half, rotated them by 90 degrees and bound them together to make a new book, which he proceeded to fill with prayers and liturgies.

Completely Indecipherable

The analysis showed that the monk subjected a total of five old books to the same treatment. In addition to the Archimedes treatise, the palimpsest contains ten pages of text by Hyperides, an orator who lived in Athens around 350 B.C., as well as fragments of an old commentary by Aristotle.

It is, of course, not entirely accurate to claim, as the Beck publishing house does, that "the history of mathematics must be completely rewritten" based on the information gleaned from the analysis -- especially since the work was discovered in the academic world long ago. One hundred and fifty years ago, Konstantin von Tischendorf, a scholar in the German city of Leipzig, found the unsightly little book in the monastery library at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and recognized its "mathematic" content.

In 1906, the great Danish literary historian Johan Ludvig Heiberg arrived in the East. Contemporaries describe him as a man with a "tall figure and flowing beard." After some searching, the Danish scholar found the document, which by then was being kept in an abbey in Istanbul.

The condition of the manuscript was still good enough that it was, as Heiberg wrote, "reasonably legible with a magnifying glass." Almost in a state of euphoria, the Dane translated the pale texts. He was only somewhat careless when copying the mathematical drawings. Four pages that had been covered with brightly colored pictures were completely indecipherable to Heiberg.

Stolen Goods

The modern experts from Baltimore mention Heiberg's pioneering work merely as an aside, preferring to hype themselves as heroes who "uncover the last secrets of this genius of antiquity with state-of-the-art decoding methods." And they leave the dark chapter that followed Heiberg's work completely unmentioned. According to Noel and his associates, at some point the codex "fell into the hands of a French family in Paris." They do not elaborate on the identity of the family or what in fact transpired.

This is all the more notable because of the intense legal battle that has raged around the strange journey the work has taken. The moldy book has been described as stolen goods in two US court cases. According to court documents, the costly and still undamaged manuscript was at the monastery in Istanbul in the early 1920s. The Greek Orthodox patriarch in charge of the abbey, Timothy of Vostra, has testified under oath that the book should never have been sold without permission.

In 1923, the manuscript suddenly turned up in the suitcase of Marie Louis Sirieix, a businessman and traveler to the Orient who lived in Paris. Sirieix claimed to have bought it from a monk, but he was unable to furnish a receipt or sales document. A short time later, the manuscript was cosmetically "improved" with four drawings in color by the Evangelists. The drawings are imitations done in the Byzantine style, and were apparently meant to increase the manuscript's value.

When Sirieix died in 1956, the dubious manuscript was still hidden in his house in Paris, possibly in the cellar. This was where it likely suffered water damage and was further damaged by pests, smoke and mold. In the 1970s, Sirieix's daughter attempted to convert the decaying bit of antiquity into cash. She had 200 books printed and quietly approached museums in Europe and the United States in an effort to unload the manuscript.

Everything Is Crooked

On Oct. 29, 1998, the daughter, by then an old woman, finally succeeded. At Christie's, the manuscript was given the internal code "Eureka 9058" and put up for auction. In an emergency petition filed a few days before the auction, the patriarch of Jerusalem attempted to prevent the manuscript from being auctioned off. But his efforts were as unsuccessful as the ensuing attempt by the Greek general consul in New York to acquire what he viewed as part of his country's cultural heritage. But he withdrew from the auction after bidding $1.9 million for the work.

The patriarch filed another lawsuit, but was unsuccessful once again. A court in New York ruled that the priests had waited too long to claim the precious manuscript and had thus forfeited their claim.

None of this sits well with the many thoughtful Archimedes scholars in Europe, although they may find comfort in what was perhaps the most brilliant idea by the forefather of mechanics. He theorized that all liquid curves around the center of the earth, and that even the surface of water in a glass is slightly vaulted. In other words, everything on earth is crooked.


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