11 October 2011

I’ve been reading the Archimedes codex by Raviel Netz and William Noel. It tells the story, with which I am familiar in its outline, of the rediscovery of the codex and its unravelling. Briefly, it is a palimpsest.

It has travelled. Originally it was a volume of texts of Archimedes handwritten in Greek on parchment in the tenth century AD, probably in Constantinople, then the capital of the Christian Byzantium empire. In the early 1200s an Orthodox Christian scraped off the texts (this can be done on parchment and was not unusual) and rearranged the shape and size of the codex and made it with Greek texts of others into a book of prayers; this was probably done in Jerusalem. In the sixteenth century the prayer book was at a monastery near Bethlehem; in the 1840s it was back in Constantinople, then in the Muslim Ottoman empire; it was still there in 1908 but later that century it was in France until it was sold by the French owners in 1998 to an American. There are obvious gaps in the thousand year history. What you see today with the naked eye is the Greek of the prayer book; but the application of modern technology and scholarship, application made possible by the civilised generosity of the purchaser, have brought the scraped Archimedes texts to our eyes and they have been translated.

I tell this because it raises several points.

How much has reached us from the past, how much is lost to us. The codex contains two Archimedes texts found nowhere else. Archimedes, one of the greatest mathematicians and scientists ever to live, died in 212 BC. It is wonderful that his ideas and words have survived the vicissitudes of time to reach us more than two thousand years later.

There are intermittent campaigns that artefacts should be returned from museums to their country of origin. The ‘origin’ of an artefact is sometimes problematic. Archimedes lived and died in a Greek settlement in Sicily, his ‘palimpsest’ texts were copied out in Constantinople and I have set out its travels since then. How would one describe the country of origin of the book, now both an Archimedes codex and a prayer book? Who rightfully owns the palimpsest? The Greek Orthodox church? Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel? The legal purchaser of 1998? I think the last.

This takes me to the Lewis chessmen which were probably made in Norway and were found in Lewis in 1831; Lewis, now part of Scotland, was part of Norway when the chessmen arrived there. Most of them were legally bought by the British Museum shortly after they were found. There are suggestions that the British Museum chessmen should be repatriated to Scotland. Is that their country of origin? And in what way is a museum in Edinburgh a better home for Nordic artefacts from the Western Isles than the British Museum?

In what way do the Assyrian bas reliefs in the British Museum belong to Iraq, a country carved out of the Ottoman empire after the First World War? Who was the original owner? Who, if anyone, are the heirs and successors of that owner or those owners?

Geographical repatriation, the notion of repatriation to country of origin, even where that country can be universally agreed, offers an idea of culture that is inadequate (there are also arguments around the wholeness of the artefact and around security for example). For most of us a grand tour of the all the repositories of international culture is not possible. However, we now have the developing technology to make artefacts accessible in virtual form to everyone wherever they live. One can access on line the images of the Archimedes palimpsest and, if you wish, work on them. Museums and galleries are increasingly putting their artefacts and paintings on line. For most of us the physical location of the artefacts is a secondary matter.

Nevertheless, an Anglo-Saxon treasure in a museum in London is more accessible than it would be first hand in context in Suffolk; the chessmen are more accessible to many more people first hand in London – or in truth in Edinburgh – than in Lewis. Of course repatriators often do not seek the return to the original location but to the capital of the modern state in which that location is.

I think there is a convincing and positive argument for international museums and galleries and their worldwide artefacts and paintings. The culture exhibited in them includes us all; however much it is of a particular time and space, it is boundless. In telling us we are all united in variety, it encourages us to be outward-looking and liberal. In marking boundaries it sees them as porous, as windows and doorways nor barriers. I think the encyclopedic international museums and galleries throw up a challenge to the very notion of manichean nationalism and singular identity. They offers us a vision, an idea that shines bright: there is only one race, the human race, and the differences and cultural varieties therein are to be enjoyed and explored not feared. As Tennyson said

“I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.” (Ulysses)

The encyclopedic international museums and galleries, in a building or online, invite us to voyage. They say that Archimedes is mine and yours and yours. This is the marvel: the ideas and work of a Greek from Sicily in the third century BC become part of the culture of the people of Cornwall.

See here for the Archimedes codex history and work and here for the images.

NETZ Reviel and NOEL William The Archimedes codex (2007) Weidenfeld and Nicolson

See also CALDWELL David H et al ‘The Lewis hoard of gaming pieces: a re-examination of their context, meanings, discovery, and manufacture’ in Medieval archeology 53, 2009

UPDATE 24 November 2013 Here is another palimpsest uncovered: Scientists reveal ancient text in medieval manuscripts