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RIT scientists help uncover ancient manuscript

A medieval copy of an ancient text by Archimedes will see the light of day thanks to new millennial technology. Scientists at RIT are recovering the text from five sample pages of the Archimedes Palimpsest, the 10th century Byzantine manuscript that sold for $2 million in 1998 at Christie's auction house in New York City.

The manuscript is the earliest transcription of the Greek mathematician's writings and the only known source of his "Method of Mechanical Theorems," which combined mathematics and physics. The anonymous owner of the manuscript has entrusted the document to the care of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore for conservation and study. The museum will select the imaging methods best suited for recovering the text in the entire manuscript. In addition to RIT, a group at Johns Hopkins University also is exploring imaging techniques under consideration.

Archimedes, who lived from about 287 to 212 B.C., was a mathematician, engineer and physicist whose work predated Newton's calculus and detailed the physics of flotation and the lever. The 10th century transcription of his text was effaced two centuries later by a monk who scraped and washed away the theorems for a clean surface on which to copy a Greek prayer book. At RIT, Robert Johnston, archeologist and professor emeritus, and Roger L. Easton Jr., professor, both of the Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, are using a variety of ultraviolet, visible and infrared wavelengths to separate the faint script and 55 geometrical drawings from the liturgical text. The scientists digitally manipulate the images with special software at the Xerox Digital Imaging Technology Center. "It's another opportunity to apply imaging science technology to reveal ancient documents that would be lost without it," Johnston says. "The technology we're using wouldn't have been possible five or 10 years ago. The project is another good example of a cooperative effort between academia and industry." In addition to Johnston and Easton, the team also includes RIT graduate students Charles Dickinson and Lichao Wei, and Keith Knox, principal scientist, at Xerox Corp.