In a way, the Walters is an unlikely home for the book, even temporarily. The Walters is a midsize art museum, and Archimedes was a mathematician. The other manuscripts in the Walters' collection are frequently decorated with gold, silver and precious jewels and are strikingly beautiful.
The palimpsest, Noel says, "is uniquely ugly."
But, on Oct. 27, 1998, the day the story about the lawsuit made the front page of The New York Times, Vikan ran into Noel on the Walters' front steps.
"We should try to get that book," Vikan said.
Noel went back to his desk and wrote a long memo explaining why borrowing the palimpsest was a bad idea, but Vikan wasn't swayed.
"I spent the next 12 years," Noel says, "trying not to mess up the opportunity of a lifetime."
Abigail Quandt is the Walters' senior conservator of manuscripts and rare books. It was her job to stabilize the manuscript and prepare the leaves to be photographed.
Because the palimpsest had been used as a prayer book since the Middle Ages, the pages were covered with centuries-old drippings from wax candles. Quandt had to analyze the chemical composition of the parchment and determine if it would stand up to testing. It took nearly four years just to separate the pages from the binding.
"You can't be nervous when you try out new techniques," she says.
"You have to just go with your gut. If there's something sacrificial, if I could find a scrap piece of parchment, I would test it there first. Part of the difficulty was that there was a huge time pressure. But I refused to rush, because if I rushed, there would be mistakes. No one could afford that."
Heroes and villains
The more Quandt and Noel delved into the condition of the palimpsest, the more they learned about the forces — and people — that had altered the book.
The researchers paid their respects to the 10th-century scribe who copied down works by Archimedes of lasting importance. The palimpsest contains the only version of "On Floating Islands" in Greek — the mathematician's native tongue. And it contains the only original versions anywhere of his "Method of Mechanical Theorems" and "The Stomachion."
Surprisingly, Noel sympathizes with Johannes Myrones, the monk who found himself distressingly short of new parchment on April 13, 1229, after Constantinople was sacked by crusaders. It was Myrones who scraped away Archimedes' original writing and converted the used parchment into a religious text.
"If the palimpsest hadn't been converted into a prayer book, it wouldn't have survived for more than 700 years," Noel says. "It survived because it was used."
Then there was the notorious 19th-century scholar and thief Constantin von Tischendorf, who visited the monastery near Jerusalem where the prayer book was kept in the early 1840s. Mysteriously, one leaf was sold to Cambridge University in 1879 by von Tischendorf's estate.
As Noel put it: "He got around."
But the palimpsest also had its saviors.
During a few weeks of his summer vacation in 1906, Archimedes expert Johan Heiberg visited a monastery a few miles west of Bethlehem. It was Heiberg who identified the prayer book as containing Archimedes' mathematical writings, he who translated an impressive chunk of the text using only his unaided eyes, and he who determined that the palimpsest contained previously unknown works.
In fact, Heiberg was such a genius that many people thought he had extracted every bit of useful information that the document contained.