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Reading Between The Lines

A Team of Scientists and Conservators Shift Through An Ancient Greek Manuscript At The Walters

By Chris Landers

For a man who deals in very old books, Will Noel is in a great hurry.

Noel is tall and thin, with black spectacles and a habit of running his hands through his short blond hair as he speaks when under stress, as if trying to draw the ideas from his head.

Meeting a visitor last month at the staff entrance to the Walters Art Museum, where he is the curator of manuscripts, his hair was close to vertical as he led the way through back rooms and still-closed galleries at a jogging pace. Noel oversees a collection of thousands of books, including some 850 medieval manuscripts and 1,500 of the earliest printed books, but one in particular has been monopolizing his time since its arrival in 1999–a one-of-a-kind copy of the work of Archimedes that has been yielding new insight into the ancient scientist with the help of modern science and the efforts of a team of scholars and researchers. The Archimedes Codex: How a Medieval Prayer Book Is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist, co-authored by Noel and Stanford University professor Reviel Netz, details the journey of the codex, through fire, mold, theft, and forgery, and the efforts to rescue the lost work of one of the ancient world’s greatest minds. Noel and Netz alternate chapters in Codex, with Netz, a professor of ancient science at Stanford University, working on a translation of the text and handling the mathematical heavy lifting.

At a back room of the museum, Noel pauses to knock before entering what, with the addition of a few drinks, could be the world’s most esoteric cocktail party. The guest of honor, whom Noel familiarly calls “Archie,” was represented by a dull and mottled piece of paper laid flat on a table at one side of the room as visiting engineers and scholars swirled around in the dark. A camera ticked away as the paper was bathed in 16 different spectrums of light, and every once in a while the conversation would pause as someone shouted “goggles!” and everyone would don theirs as the cycle of light reached a harmful infrared.

The piece of paper at the center of attention is a leaf from a book that came to the museum eight years ago through the graces of an anonymous billionaire, whom Noel refers to as the “Billpayer” or “Mr. B.” It is a leaf from a book containing the oldest known copy of the work of Archimedes, a book no one has read before in its entirety.

The book itself was copied in the 10th century, more than a millennium after the ancient Greek mathematician and scientist’s death, by an anonymous scribe working with reed pens and ink mixed from minerals and tree sap and writing on animal skin. It is one of three books that make up all we have of the mathematician. The other two, having been copied and translated, no longer exist, a fate the book at the Walters has narrowly missed many times over the last 1,000 years.

Perhaps the most traumatic attempt on the book came in its youth, some 200 years after it was copied, when a scribe by the name of John Myronas removed the bound pages, scrubbed the ink off them, and reused them as part of a prayer book, writing over the faint traces of original writing. Mold, fire, and the passage of time–along with the addition of several forged icons, possibly a 20th-century attempt to raise the value of the prayer book–have further obscured the text that Noel and the Walters team are now trying to read.

As the lights at the side of the room bathe the parchment and the camera captures the image, technician Keith Knox explains the process: After isolating images in which each set of letters can be seen clearly, both the original writing and the later text, they are digitally combined–one shows up in black, the other in red. Early attempts, in which the overwriting was removed entirely, were scrapped. Scholars attempting to translate the original couldn’t tell if a gap in the text was written over or intentionally left blank.

Calling up a combined image on his computer screen, Knox traces out the ancient Greek writing as Benjamin Weaver, visiting from Oxford University, watches. “Here’s a delta, iota, omega, and then,” Knox pauses. “I think a mu, well, actually, trace it out–yes, mu. This was Diondas, the fellow’s name in this part of the letter.”

Weaver, an expert in digital imaging who has worked with parchment scrolls damaged in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, watches as the letters appear on the screen. “I’ll be darned,” he says.

The Archimedes codex is one of the less visually interesting volumes in the Walters collection. For contrast, Noel shows off a Quran copied around 1500, he says, in a cave in Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan. Beautifully illuminated and bound, it is the type of book Noel wishes received as much attention as the codex, which he has come to see as sort of a second job. At a recent meeting with visiting scholars, when one of them mentioned their quest to borrow a rare first edition of Homer printed in 1484 from a library at Harvard University, Noel disappeared into the climate-controlled room adjoining his office to fetch a copy from the shelf.

The Archimedes codex itself, disassembled now, occupies a set of cardboard boxes in the conservation laboratory of another member of the project, Abigail Quandt, the Walters’ head of book and paper conservation. Before leaving his cluttered office, Noel warns, “Down there, you’re in her world.”

Quandt is the only person to touch the pages of the codex since it arrived at the museum, taking each out of its plastic sheath. Disassembly of the book took Quandt four years of careful work, in a room that resembles an operating theater, bandaging and cleaning the damaged pages. Each scrap of parchment is carefully documented and labeled.

On those scraps, translation revealed, were an impressive testimony to Archimedes. Translating a previously unreadable fragment, Netz and a colleague discovered that Archimedes had used the mathematical concept of infinity for one of his proofs, an idea that was not added to the math canon until the 17th century. Leonardo da Vinci, an avid reader of the available Archimedes texts, used the ancient scientist’s method for finding the centers of gravity of plane figures as a jumping-off point to find the centers of solid objects, unaware of Archimedes’ work in the codex, which did that and more.

The last glimpse of the codex came in 1906, when Danish linguist Johan Ludwig Heiberg recognized the significance of the faint underwriting in an obscure prayer book in a Constantinople library. He transcribed what he could see, using a magnifying glass, and photographed the rest, publishing his work. During the 1920s, the codex was sent from Constantinople to Greece. It never made it.

It turned up again in the 1970s, in the care of the daughter of a Frenchman who had fought in Greece during World War I and in the French Resistance during World War II. She offered it for sale privately but had no takers. Eventually, it was offered at auction by Christie’s and sold in 1998 to an anonymous private buyer for $2.2 million.

Noel, a London transplant who came to Baltimore in 1995 to work at the Walters, keeps track of prominent manuscript sales as part of his work, so when the Archimedes codex was sold in 1998, he told Walters director Gary Vikan about it. Vikan asked Noel to try to contact the owner to see if he would like to bring the manuscript to Baltimore. He did it, somewhat halfheartedly, through an e-mail to a mutual acquaintance. When a reply came back, saying the owner was interested, Noel was floored, and set about learning all he could about Archimedes and his codex.

Noel met the owner–at the museum, then for lunch at Marconi’s–and expressed his gratitude that the Walters was being considered as a home for the manuscript. The owner told him it was already there–he had left it in a bag on Noel’s desk.

The codex, in addition to being what Netz calls in the book “Archimedes’ brain in a box,” also contains several other works–several letters of ancient Greek politician Hyperides, previously unknown, have shed light on the Greek attitude toward Alexander the Great, a few years before he conquered most of their known world. Another section turned out to be an ancient commentary on the philosopher Aristotle.

Last month’s imaging was the last for the project–the book has been recorded, to be studied and discussed by scholars, and to cast new light on a scientist who lived 2,000 years ago. Soon, Quandt says, she will work out the volume’s return to its owner, and how best to preserve it at its eventual home in a private collection.

Noel is dismissive of his own role in the codex project, which has pushed the frontier of the science of digital imaging to uncover the secrets of the ancients. “Archie was dumped on my desk by a guy 10 years ago,” he says. “I can’t read Greek. I can’t add, can’t use a camera, can’t do anything.”

Originally published 11/21/2007 in the Baltimore Citypaper

Published inStories