September 19, 2009


Mad Men's history: "a palimpsest of
the years of history that preceded it"
—James Poniewozik



Palimpsest corresponds to two related definitions:

1 a parchment or other surface on which writing has been applied over earlier writing which has been erased.

2 something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form: The house is a palimpsest of the taste of successive owners.

Compact Oxford English Dictionary (COED)


Palimpsest: from the Greek words palin, "again" and psestos, "rubbed smooth." COED


In commenting on the third season of the television drama Mad Men, Time magazine's James Poniewozik puts palimpsest into supple play, using it not only to link the past to the present (1963 in the story line) as one would expect with the word, but also to link present time to future time, through a reference to plot foreshadowing:

Mad Men's history is more real for being less obvious. It isn't so much a story about 1963 as it is a palimpsest of the years of history that preceded it, all of which shape the future and private lives. (The JFK assasination is deftly foreshadowed by the date on a wedding invitation.)
"The Pause that Refreshes," Time, August 24, 2009, 54.


Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature suggests that

the motive for making palimpsests usually seems to have been economic — reusing parchment was cheaper than preparing a new skin. Another motive may have been directed by Christian piety, as in the conversion of a pagan Greek manuscript to receive the text of a Church Father.
—Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, Publishers, 1995, 852.


The Archimedes Palimpsest

In recent months, the most widely reported story about a historical palimpsest concerns the Archimedes Palimpsest, which, as Wikipedia recounts, "originally was a copy of an otherwise unknown ancient [mathematical] work of Archimedes of Syracuse and other authors, which was overwritten with a religious text."

The Archimedes Palimpsest is a palimpsest on parchment in the form of a codex [which is a book] in the format used for modern books, with separate pages normally bound together and given a cover. It was a Roman invention that replaced the scroll.

Archimedes lived in the third century BC,but the copy of his work was made in the tenth century AD by an anonymous scribe. In the twelfth century the codex was unbound and washed, in order that the parchment leaves could be folded in half and reused for a Christian liturgical text. It was a book of nearly 90 pages before being made a palimpsest of 177 pages; the older leaves folded so that each became two leaves of the liturgical book. The erasure was incomplete, and Archimedes' work is now readable after scientific and scholarly work from 1998 to 2008 using digital processing of images produced by ultraviolet, infrared, visible and raking light, and X-ray.

Those of you interested in learning about the mathematical theory recovered from the Archimedes Palimpsest or in understanding the current technology being used to decode the document will find this link enlightening:


"In [the] short video clip [below] Abigail Quandt, Senior Conservator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at The Walters Art Museum, turns some pages of the book. It might surprise some people that Abigail is not wearing gloves. Actually it makes conservation sense. Her clean hands do no damage to the parchment and she can be more sensitive to the fragile folios if she is not wearing anything on them."—

To view the video, click select this link:


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