The Economies of Palimpsest

DATE: May 15th, 2011
RESEARCH/WRITTEN BY:     Damian C. Koshnick                                    

I am in love, and have been for years, with palimpsests because -metaphorically and literally,  they are all around us …

Archimedes' Palimpsest

Occasionally, you learn things that resonate for years. In 2000, during my first experience in graduate school, a mentor and professor of mine –Tom Gage, used the word palimpsest in a conversation. I nodded my head politely the first time he mentioned it, thinking, “Should I know this word?” But I knew that intelligent graduate students (the ones that survive anyway) learn to look things up. I came to know that through Latin and then Greek it means, “again, to scrape”; that it is the act of reusing a material (parchment, vellum, papyrus, etc.), by (often) imperfectly scraping away and writing over a previously extant text. Once I understood the term, as so often happens, I saw palimpsests and echoes of the concept in many places –in gang related graffiti (tagging walls as palimpsests of ownership), on wind ripped billboard signs, and even in the news.

A Famous Palimpsest: If you pay attention to the news for palimpsest, “Archimedes’ Palimpsest” makes the headlines every two or three years as scientists discover more effective ways –most recently (2006) pulsing X-rays– to pull forth Archimedes’ iron tainted ink, which rests in various decomposed conditions, obscured beneath an overlayed book of prayers.

In a new book “Is God a Mathematician” (which is fascinating for many reasons) the mathematician Mario Livio (2009) describes the original process by which -sometime before 1229- a scribe, Johannes Myrones, “unbound and washed” Archimedes’ original text, “so the parchment leaves could be reused for a Christian prayer book”. Fortunately, however, that “washing of the original text did not obliterate the writing completely”. What was left represents to us now what is Archimedes’ text, and is now one of the oldest (2,000 years) known texts.

Livio attributes the scribe’s actions to a broad cultural shift in the diminishing appreciation of mathematics after the Fourth Crusade, or as he noted, “in the years that followed, the passion for mathematics faded” (p. 54). Presumably then, Myrones attempted destruction and appropriation of Archimedes’ text was essentially an act of changing cultural values and of material necessity. Parchment, of course, was not as plentiful, nor cheap as paper has become for us; the text was valuable to the scribe for the parchment, upon which he could accomplish his prayer writing duties.

Since my first graduate school days, more than a decade ago, palimpsests have fascinated me. As I see it now, this concept represents my scholarly “gateway” into the socio-cultural perspective; it led to deep reflections on ways in which context (social, historical, technological, etc.) impacts writing practice and language use. As I searched my way through some of the details of “Archimedes’ Palimpsest,” there was, for example, a distinct moment when I came to more earnestly appreciate what economy meant –how the limits of our material and social world constantly impress circumstance upon us. Palimpsests, in many circumstances, represented a pragmatic response to the labor-intensive and limited distribution of parchment. It is a simple concept, but one that strikes deep. From this experience, I began to recognize contemporary incarnations, the ways in which our current practices are impacted by the strong undercurrents of our material, social, and cognitive realities. In turn, I started to study the literature. I began to recognize real world examples, in my own and others’ practices. 

It does not take long to realize that although our ability to produce and distribute writing has dramatically improved since the scribe picked up and decided to “recycle” Archimedes’ text around 1229, we are yet ever-adapting and reinventing our communicative and writing practices based upon both natural limitations, and local circumstance. History is full of these evolutions of inscription and re-inscription (through various technologies) as pragmatic and incidental, or even aggressive and explicit acts of power. And even though we have greatly improved our ability to communicate efficiently and across great distances instantaneously, the struggle between our desire and our ability to first capture and then assert our ideas in meaningful and lasting ways remains.

Clearly a great deal has changed regarding the valuation of Archimedes’ text since 1229, because in 1998 an anonymous philanthropist paid $2 million dollars for it and deposited at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore for study and conservation (see: 

I am in love, and have been for years, with palimpsests because -metaphorically and literally,  they are all around us. And, if you pay attention, examples show up every so often in the news:

A Recent Palimpsest: New York Times -2008 “Consider Nepal’s new currency. Shortly after the king gave up power in 2006, the government ordered the printing of money, starting with the 500-rupee note, free of the king’s portrait. In the new design, developed by the central bank, King Gyanendra’s image was replaced by that of the noncontroversial Mount Everest. But the paper on which the new bills are printed, having been ordered long ago, still bears a watermark of the king’s face. Unable to afford new currency paper, bank officials took creative license. They slapped a dark-pink rhododendron on top of the watermark. The king and his bird-of-paradise plumed crown can be seen only if the bill is held up to the light” (

And, again and again, there is the “scraping” and “rewriting” all about in the world around us:

Point Made, Point Sal Sign -Photo: Damian C. Koshnick

 “I am like one of those old books that ends up moldering for lack of having been read. There’s nothing to do but spin out the thread of memory and from time to time, wipe away the dust building up there.” –Seneca