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The Archimedes Codex unpeeled by modern technological sleuthing

Deciphering latent script on ancient parchment makes curator Will Noel's job an Indiana Jones-style adventure

Will Noel, a Walters Art Museum curator in Baltimore, handled its restoration, and co-wrote a book about the Archimedes Palimpsest.

courtesy of the Walters Art Museum

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This is about an ancient book called The Archimedes Codex, bought for $2.2 million in October, 1998, at an auction in New York City by an anonymous collector who sent it to the Walters Art Museum, here to be restored, conserved, and probed for its content. It was thought to contain mathematical theses conceived by the genius of Syracuse (287-212 BC), whose name it bears, ideas not found anywhere else in the world.

The Walters faced a daunting task: what arrived was a clump of folios, crushed, torn, punctured by worm holes, in the inflexible grip of old carpenter's glue, charred at its edges, and covered with mold and water stains.

It's a miracle it still exists.

It took four years just to remove the glue, and open the book sufficiently to allow experts on ancient Greek texts to access much of its content and, with the help of ultra sophisticated imaging systems, to read it.

"It was an extraordinary adventure to read the thoughts of a guy who lived over 2,000 years ago," says Will Noel, the young curator of ancient books at the Walters and leader of the nine-year restoration effort. Mr. Noel – tall, thin, buoyant, and bespectacled in a Harry Potterish way – adds: "In the field of old books nothing gets more romantic than that."


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