A palimpsest is a writing surface that has been erased and used again. Since parchment is made of animal skin, it was durable enough to stand up to the process or scraping off letters to create a new, blank page.
Older manuscript that were in sufficient supply, or deemed no longer important, in the middle ages were “erased” and new manuscripts written on top.
Until now, those old texts were locked away, but writing leaves an imprint that is independent of the ink. This means that text is preserved in the indentations under the later manuscript on a palimpsest.
New digital imaging makes it possible to reveal those lost texts, and this means an entirely new venue of textual exploration has just opened.
Using advanced multispectral imaging methods, the Palamedes project, based out of the Universities of Göttingen and Bologna were able to see the original writings in the manuscripts, one of which is located at the library of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem, while the t other can be found at the National Library of France in Paris.
The manuscript in Jerusalem originates from the famous Library of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. The uppermost text layer from the thirteenth century comprises the Prophetic Books of the Greek Old Testament, underlaid by older texts from various medieval manuscripts that contain works of Euripides and Aristotle, alongside theological tractates. “The manuscript in Jerusalem is one of the most significant witnesses to Euripides’ work”, explains the head of the research project, Felix Albrecht from Göttingen University’s Faculty of Theology. The manuscript contains the text of Euripides, surrounded by ancient annotations.
The manuscript in Paris preserves the remnants of an ancient philosophical manuscript from the late fifth century, the commentary of an unknown author on Aristotle’s work. It contains drawings of highest quality, which, due to their age, constitute important evidence for the textual tradition of philosophical commentaries. “The discovery of this work is of inestimable value for the history of philosophical education in the late antiquity”, says the discoverer of the manuscript, Dr. Chiara Faraggiana di Sarzana from Bologna University.
Given the number of lost manuscripts from the ancient world, and the widespread use of palimpsests, it seems almost inevitable that an entire secret library is out there right now, hidden under the pages of other manuscripts and just waiting to be rediscovered. Just writing that gives me chills.