This document, now called a palimpsest (writing material used several times after earlier writing has been erased), has a long and fascinating history. Archimedes, who lived between 287–212 B.C., wrote the original text and diagrams on papyrus. That document was lost, but other papyrus versions survived. A scribe copied Archimedes’s writings onto sturdier goatskin parchment, probably in the second half of the tenth century A.D. In the thirteenth century, the manuscript was taken apart by Greek monks and the Archimedes text was scraped off. The parchment was recycled into a prayer book in a process called palimpsesting. The Archimedes manuscript then effectively disappeared for centuries, obscured by its new life as liturgical writings. For many years, it was in a monastery library in Constantinople (now Istanbul).
In 1906, Danish classics professor Johan Ludwig Heiberg discovered the lost manuscript and identified the underlying text as unknown writings by Archimedes. Heiberg photographed many of the pages that showed the faint Archimedes text, but missed some important passages and was unable to photograph the parts of the pages beneath the palimpsest bindings. The parchment then fell into the hands of a private collector in France, who altered and damaged parts of the palimpsest. Lost again, it resurfaced at Christie’s auction house in 1998 and was purchased by an anonymous donor for $2 million. Since then, the Archimedes Palimpsest has been in the care of The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, where they’re conserving, imaging, and deciphering it.
The Archimedes Palimpsest contains seven of the Greek mathematician’s treatises. Most importantly, it is the only surviving copy of On Floating Bodies in the original Greek, and the unique source for the Method of Mechanical Theorems and Stomachion.