Tuesday 26 November 2019

The Archimedes palimpsest

The ‘Archimedes palimpsest’ is the most famous manuscript of any ancient pagan text. I’d better explain its title first:
  • A palimpsest is a parchment manuscript that has been recycled and had a second layer of text written on it. The word literally means ‘re-polished’, that is, a parchment that had the original text washed or scraped off. Scholarly publications sometimes use the term rescriptus (‘rewritten’).
  • Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 BCE) is the most renowned of all ancient mathematicians. He wrote important books on topics like conic sections, the uses of infinitesimals and infinity, combinatorics, mechanical principles, and buoyancy.
Not much of Archimedes’ writings survives, even though he was a revered authority. So the Archimedes palimpsest is a big deal.
Monastery of Mar Saba, West Bank, where the palimpsest was housed in the 1600s. (Source: Jean and Nathalie, cropped; CC BY 2.0)
The manuscript, once catalogued as Metochion of the Holy Sepulchre MS 355, Constantinople, contains
  • Archimedes’ Method, which survives nowhere else;
  • the only Greek copies of On floating bodies and the Stomachion, both of which survived elsewhere in Arabic translations (a fragmentary translation in the case of the Stomachion);
  • other works by Archimedes known from other copies (Planes in equilibrium, Spirals, On the sphere and cylinder, Measurement of the circle);
  • two speeches by the Athenian orator Hypereides, which survive nowhere else (Against Diondas, Against Timandros);
  • an ancient commentary on Aristotle’s Categories.
So far the story is all true. Now we’re going to look at three widespread misconceptions about the manuscript.
  1. The belief that the palimpsest is a potent example of how religion corrupts science: that a 13th century scribe destroyed Archimedes’ text to make a prayer book, and that this is characteristic of the opposition between religious belief and the scientific method.
  2. The belief that the texts in the palimpsest went unread between 1229, when the prayerbook was completed, and 1998, when it was sold at auction.
  3. The belief that modern technology, such as X-ray fluorescence imaging and ultraviolet imaging conducted from 1999 to 2008, bears the sole credit for rescuing the texts in the palimpsest.
OK, there are elements of truth to each of these. But they wildly misrepresent the reality.

It’s true that a 13th century scribe erased Archimedes’ and Hypereides’ text to create a prayerbook. It’s true that modern technology saved texts that would otherwise have been lost.

But it’s false to imagine that this represents a conflict between religion and science. (Who do you think copied out the Archimedes in the first place? Elves?) It’s at most half true to imagine that modern technology was undoing damage wrought by a monk. It’s false that Archimedes’ Method went unread until 1998, and it’s false that the Method was saved by modern imaging techniques.

The illicit antiquities trade

This isn’t a story of the scientific method triumphing over religious ignorance. The bigger story is about the trade in stolen antiquities.
The Archimedes palimpsest. Where is it now? Officially, no one knows.
Over the last few years there’s been heavy attention to the fact that sales of ancient -- and mediaeval -- manuscripts often take place without any attention to provenance or legal ownership. This has been in the news just recently thanks to a fiasco surrounding an early papyrus of the New Testament gospel of Mark, owned by the Egypt Exploration Society. In 2013 the papyrologist Dirk Obbink secretly tried to sell it and three other New Testament papyri, without the EES’s knowledge or consent, to an American company, Hobby Lobby. Hobby Lobby is a prominent supporter of Christian evangelicalism, and has a reputation for rapaciously acquiring ancient Christian manuscripts without the slightest concern for where they came from. It has since turned out that Obbink ‘sold’ eleven other EES-owned papyri to them in 2010 -- and possibly to other buyers too.

At the time, Obbink was the general editor of the EES’s Oxyrhynchus papyri collection. He held that position until the EES got wind of his activities.
In August 2016 the EES did not re-appoint Professor Obbink ... primarily because of unsatisfactory discharge of his editorial duties, but also because of concerns, which he did not allay, about his alleged involvement in the marketing of ancient texts, especially the Sappho text.
-- EES press release, 14 Oct. 2019
As it happens, the Mark papyrus and ‘the Sappho text’ mentioned here are both very relevant to the case of the Archimedes palimpsest.

In 2014 Obbink published some new fragments of Sappho. Obbink has been nearly as secretive about where they came from as he was about the New Testament papyri. His initial publication stated only that the Sappho was ‘now in a private collection, London’, without a word about where it came from or how it was found.

He has since stated that the Sappho was bequeathed to the University of Mississippi (sometime around 1960, apparently) then sold at auction by Christie’s in 2011. Rather conspicuously, the Sappho also has a past with Hobby Lobby: see research by Brent Nongbri (Dec. 2018, Apr. 2019).

Where is the Sappho papyrus now? Only Obbink knows.

(Well, officially. Most likely it’s in the hands of Mahmoud Elder, a collector who once ran an antiquities trading company with Obbink, and who has also sold papyri to Hobby Lobby.)

What has that got to do with Archimedes? Well, several experts have pointed out recently that classicists have been eager to leap on the text of newly found manuscripts, while ignoring the secretiveness -- and often illegality -- surrounding the physical objects.
... the BMCR review of the 2016 edited volume devoted to the newest Sappho poems omitted any discussion whatsoever of questions of provenance, save a brief comment that the editorial board felt “obliged” to insert as a header. The “recovery” of even the slightest scrap — let alone a trove including a nearly complete, previously unknown poem — is, so the reasoning seems to go, to be celebrated no matter the means by which it is achieved.

The scope of Obbink’s alleged activities on the antiquities market would seem to put the lie to this reasoning.
-- Sampson and Uhlig, Eidolon, 6 Nov. 2019

I would personally avoid publication if documents are lacking, but anyone who decides otherwise must be very clear about why, though documents are missing, they think the papyrus was legally acquired. ...

In other words, dear Classicists, especially those among you who have commented and written pages and pages on the new Sappho poems, we have completely lost track of the only extant copy of the verses in question, verses otherwise unknown and unattested. Leaving aside the problems connected to the very unclear provenance of this “elderly” gentleman’s fragment, to me this seems a remarkable illustration of the unfair conditions of access that come with private collections.
-- Mazza, Eidolon, 8 Nov. 2019
Exactly the same reservations apply to the Archimedes palimpsest. Like the Sappho papyrus, no one knows where it is -- except for the people who published it. And, again like the Sappho, its location is only a secret officially. Everyone knows the Archimedes palimpsest is at Jeff Bezos’ house.

But in the case of the Archimedes, we can say with 100% certainty that it is stolen property.

When Anne Guersan sold the Archimedes palimpsest to Jeff Bezos, all attention was focused on the price, the text, and the conservation efforts. Some people did pay attention to where the physical object came from and where it was going -- but these things weren’t part of the popular story.

The false narrative

Read up on the palimpsest, and you will mostly find praise of the conservators, imaging specialists, and philologists who have studied the manuscript since 1998. I don’t exactly want to condemn their work: they aren’t the ones who stole it. And we have seen real discoveries about Archimedes and Hypereides. Would I have acted differently, in their shoes? I don’t know.

But, as with the Sappho, the scholars have been careful to avoid looking a gift horse in the mouth. They are effusive in their praise of ‘Mr. B.’ In public discussions they tend to avoid drawing too much attention to the palimpsest’s history between 1908 and 1998. A 2007 popular book on the palimpsest lays so much emphasis on the auction -- ‘a huge day for the history of science’ -- that if you stopped reading before chapter 7, you might well come away thinking the palimpsest was completely unknown beforehand.
A team of scientists used a special x-ray imaging technique, called x-ray fluorescence (XRF) imaging, to finally unlock these scientific secrets, hidden from view since antiquity on a goatskin parchment manuscript.
-- California Council on Science and Technology, July 2006

(The project leader) assembled a team of some of the world’s best imaging experts to recover as much as possible of Archimedes' text from the Palimpsest that no eyes had seen in modern times.
-- Scientific American, Sep. 2011
Well, the 1998 auction was a huge day, but not for science. It was a terrific day for trading in stolen antiquities. The huge day for science was 91 years earlier, in 1907, when the Method was published by Johan Ludvig Heiberg, a Danish expert on Archimedes. The popular story keeps so quiet about this that the authors of the above snippets simply never knew it.
Archimedes’ Method, published by Heiberg in 1907. Here’s a translation-cum-paraphrase from 1912.
The popular story also tends to create an imaginary timeline --
  1. the text was written by Archimedes,
  2. then a monk damaged it, illustrating the perniciousness of Christianity,
  3. then it was rescued by 21st century secular technology.
If you listen to this TED talk, given by the project leader in May 2012, you may notice how he directs his audience’s attention. He spends nearly a minute describing how a monk tore apart seven unique texts and erased them (1:05-1:58). Then he spends 9 seconds on the damage done by 20th century looters and forgers (2:28-2:36) -- without ever mentioning that they were looters. He even says (2:40),
It’s the sort of book that you (would have) thought would be in an institution. But it’s not in an institution: it was bought by a private owner in 1998 ...
Well, it was in an institution, actually. And it was kept in pretty good condition, all things considered. Until it was stolen from that institution sometime around 1920.

So, here are a few counterpoints to the beliefs I outlined above.
  • The palimpsest didn’t go unread between 1229 and 1998. Johan Heiberg published the Method all the way back in 1907. Heiberg’s equipment was a magnifying glass and a camera. A German translation appeared the same year, an English translation-cum-paraphrase in 1912, then another critical edition in 1913.
  • Between 1999 and 2011 a barrage of careful and high-tech conservation efforts were aimed at the palimpsest. These efforts certainly revealed more of the text than Heiberg had been able to read, especially the diagrams. But, contrary to what is claimed in a 2007 popular book about the palimpsest, the important parts of the Method were known since Heiberg.
  • Conservation efforts weren’t primarily aimed at fixing damage inflicted by a Christian monk. Yes, the manuscript was damaged by the 13th century monk. Some of the text was illegible to Heiberg, and Heiberg didn’t even try to transcribe the Hypereides speeches. But the main focus of the conservation efforts were to rescue the book from damage done by thieves, forgers, and illicit collectors in the 1900s, after it was stolen.
The discovery of the Archimedes palimpsest in 1907: front page coverage. (New York Times, 16 July 1907, page 1)
You have to treat this story pretty selectively to make it a story of religion versus science. Yes, the 13th century scribe made Archimedes’ text harder to read. But it was Christian monks that made the Archimedes manuscript in the first place. And the damage done in the palimpsesting process pales in comparison with the reckless treatment of the manuscript over the last hundred years --
  • Some damage was probably done when the palimpsest was stolen after the end of World War I.
  • Much worse damage was inflicted by Salomon Guerson, Marie-Louis Sirieix, and Anne Guersan, who had the palimpsest at various points in the 1900s:
    • Guerson removed seven leaves, got a forger to erase the text and paint fake illuminations on four of them, and reinserted those four leaves (the other three leaves are lost).
    • Sirieix and possibly Guersan kept the palimpsest in a damp cellar where it grew mouldy.
    • One of them, or maybe all of them, put rusty objects and Blu-tack inside the palimpsest’s pages, and tried to ‘fix’ the book with layers of PVA glue.

The real history of the palimpsest

The most thorough history is one written by John Lowden (2011). Most of the following is a condensed, streamlined version of his report.
Note. I do have reservations about some aspects of Lowden’s account. As a team-member in the 2000s research project, Lowden has a vested interest in casting the current ownership of the palimpsest as legitimate. He suggests the mould on the manuscript may not be Sirieix’s fault; his closing paragraph tries to give the impression that the 13th century scribe is equally as culpable as the 20th century looters and forgers; he casts Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the stolen book as something ‘that can be unequivocally praised’; he says Bezos himself has ‘heroic generosity’. (Try telling that to Amazon employees.) It’s very tendentious. Still, his investigations into the history of the forged illuminations, and his interview of Elie Behar, make his account indispensable.
The Archimedes manuscript was made by Christian monks in the 10th century. In the 13th century a scribe recycled the manuscript into a prayerbook -- making it a palimpsest -- and completed his work in 1229. During the 1600s the palimpsest was housed in the Mar Saba monastery, in what is now the West Bank, about 9 km south-east of Jerusalem.

In the early 1800s the Patriarchate of Jerusalem took over the monastery’s collection. They relocated a number of books to Constantinople (as it then was), to a sort of embassy monastery that they had there, the Metochion of the Holy Sepulchre.

In the 1840s the biblical scholar Constantin Tischendorf visited the monastery, and secretly cut out one leaf and stole it. He knew it was a mathematical text, but he probably didn’t know it was Archimedes. He bequeathed the page to Cambridge University Library, and the stolen item is still there, catalogued as MS Add. 1879.23.

In 1899 Athanasios Papadopoulos-Kerameus catalogued the Metochion’s holdings, and published a description of the manuscript, including an insert that showed that it had come from Mar Saba. He also transcribed a passage of the palimpsest.
The Metochion as it appears today. (Balat, Istanbul)
Heiberg realised that Papadopoulos-Kerameus’ transcription was Archimedes, and travelled to Constantinople in 1906 and 1908. He studied the manuscript as carefully as he could, took photographs, and published the Method and the Stomachion in 1907. Between 1910 and 1915 he published a complete new edition of Archimedes’ works.

It was probably in the hubbub following World War I that the palimpsest was stolen from the Metochion. The people who worked on the palimpsest between 1998 and 2011 insist the palimpsest was bought, not stolen, and they point to one other manuscript being bought from the Metochion in the 1920s. They have a vested interest in that belief. If the palimpsest is stolen property, that would compromise every aspect of their work.

Even if it was bought, we know that Patriarch Damianos of Jerusalem wrote to the Metochion in 1923 with strict instructions not to sell any manuscripts. Whether it changed hands for money, or it was seized by a French soldier in the occupation force, it went without the knowledge or consent of its actual owner.

If money did change hands, the situation is identical to that of the Oxyrhynchus papyri that Dirk Obbink sold to Hobby Lobby. Just like the papyri, the palimpsest is stolen property.

After this point, there are two versions of what happened.

Story number 1 is the story given by Anne Guersan, the seller of the palimpsest in 1998. Her father Marie-Louis Sirieix (1884-1956) was a French soldier who served in Greece in World War I, and acquired the palimpsest in the early 1920s. This is the story she gave to a New York court when the Patriarchate of Jerusalem sued to prevent the sale in 1999, but with no evidence of how Sirieix acquired it.

Story number 2 is that Sirieix didn’t get the palimpsest until 1942. Prior to that it was held by Salomon Guerson (1872-1970), a carpet dealer who moved his business from Istanbul to Paris in the 1920s, and who is known to have been trying to sell mediaeval manuscripts to various museums and libraries between 1926 and 1934. In 1942 Guerson fled Paris to escape the Nazis, and at that point he sold the palimpsest to Sirieix, who was in the Resistance. This is the version given by Guerson’s grandsons, Elie Behar and Salomon Guerson, according to H. Brandt Corstius, who phoned Guerson in 2007, and John Lowden, who was in contact with Behar in 2010. After the war Salomon’s and Sirieix’s children, Robert and Anne, married in 1946. (The variation Guerson-Guersan comes from transliteration differences when the family moved from Istanbul to Paris.)

In addition, we know that in 1932 Guerson showed one folio of the palimpsest to the curator of the Huntington Library in Los Angeles -- probably Reginald Haselden -- who identified it as Heiberg’s Archimedes text. Subsequently Guerson offered it to collections in Paris, Oxford, and Chicago. These details come from a letter that Guerson wrote to Harold Willoughby at Chicago University in 1934, naming the price as $6000.

Guerson’s 1934 letter is pretty much a guarantee that story number 2 is the true one. Anne Guersan’s testimony at the 1999 trial was false.

Between 1938 and 1942 Guerson arranged to have illuminations forged and painted over some pages. Lowden documents Guerson’s track record of faking illuminations into manuscripts that passed through his hands. We know this happened after 1938 because the paint contains phthalocyanine green, a synthetic pigment, and that’s the year that it became commercially available. It’s likely that three further leaves, which vanished from the manuscript between 1908 and 1998, were also taken out to have illuminations forged on them, and never reattached.

According to Anne Guersan’s testimony -- though based on what we’ve seen, we should doubt every word of it -- Sirieix passed the palimpsest on to Anne in 1947. The information about what the palimpsest actually was didn’t make it as far as her: she claims that she began asking people for advice about the manuscript in the 1960s, following Sirieix’s death in 1956. She had it identified -- so she says -- by Abraham Wasserstein, a specialist in ancient science who during the 1960s was at Leicester University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and Père Joseph Paramelle, a hellenist-byzantinist at the CNRS in Paris.
Note. A 1976 review written by Wasserstein discusses the palimpsest without giving a particular impression that he was aware of its whereabouts.
In the early 1970s the Guersan family started trying to sell the palimpsest. This may have been prompted by Salomon Guerson’s death in 1970; alternatively it might be that she was feeling pressure in the wake of the 1970 UNESCO agreement on the trade of cultural property. She got expressions of interest from various American universities -- Yale, Texas, and Pittsburgh -- but none of them was rich enough for her taste.

Finally in the 1990s she tried Christie’s in New York. And there she struck gold.

Just one snag: it was stolen property, and everyone knew it. Christie’s informed the Greek government of the situation in August 1998, two months before the auction. In September they listed the sale publicly. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem, to which the Metochion belonged, notified Christie’s a week before the auction that they believed the manuscript was theirs.

But the palimpsest was already in the US. In 1999 a New York court ruled that the sale was legal. There’s zero chance of the decision being overturned.

Given that the Patriarchate responded to news of the auction so quickly, it may sound crazy that the court ruled that they had delayed unreasonably. It was the right call, actually. The court pointed out
... if the Patriarchate was able to retain counsel with impressive speed to bring this action the night before the Christie’s auction, it could have retained counsel to search for the Palimpsest, or at least make some inquiries, at some point during the previous seventy years.
-- Greek Orthodox Patriarchate v. Christie’s, Inc. 1999, at *31
For further legal discussion see Reyhan 2001: 999-1002; Carver 2005; Ray 2015. Carver thinks the Patriarchate would have had a stronger case with different arguments -- but she also concludes that the case probably can’t be relitigated.

So the judgement is final. It may even be just: the Patriarchate admitted at the trial that they hadn’t taken much interest in the fate of the Metochion’s manuscripts before 1998. And it’s not clear that the palimpsest’s condition would be improved by going back to Jerusalem.

Still, the fact remains that the stolen palimpsest stays in Jeff Bezos’ keeping. Bezos has allowed detailed publications and open access information about the palimpsest. But an important cultural object is lost forever -- not only to the Patriarchate, but to the whole world.

More importantly, Bezos has set a potent example. The enormous amount of money he has spent on buying and conserving it is a huge encouragement to the trade in stolen antiquities. The incident certainly didn’t discourage Christie’s from auctioning the Sappho papyrus in 2011. It isn’t going to put them off other similar deals in future.