An Epic Day for Classics Department

Digital manuscript of great mathematician Archimedes, with help from Holy Cross students, goes public

The oldest book on got hundreds of years older at 2 p.m. on Oct. 29.

After months of poring over digital photography and initial transcriptions, students gathered in the St. Isidore of Seville Computer Lab at Holy Cross, where they conducted their work, to watch and celebrate as the electronic edition of a 10th century manuscript of the great mathematician Archimedes became available on the project’s Web site.

The manuscript was recycled when the original text (the palimpsest) was scraped off, and overwritten to create a prayer book in the 13th century. The discovery of the palimpsest in 1906 created a sensation in the scholarly world because it includes works of Archimedes that are nowhere else preserved. The manuscript disappeared during World War I, and only resurfaced in the 1990s.

For the past decade, the Archimedes Project, made up of an international team of scholars, has worked on the conservation of the badly damaged text. With the aid of digital imaging processing, the project has been able to bring out parts of the palimpsest not previously legible.

Beginning in March, 10 Holy Cross classics majors (and a group of undergraduate Greek students at Furman University) worked with digital photography and initial transcriptions of the palimpsest by classicists at Oxford and Stanford universities. After adding accents and punctuation to the bare letters recorded in the manuscript, the students created documents structured in XML following the guidelines of the Text Encoding Initiative. The resulting electronic texts can be used to generate print editions and web pages, or can be queried and manipulated interactively.

The XML texts can also be coordinated with the digital images to make possible illustrated interactive editions unlike anything that can be achieved in print. A second team of three Holy Cross students worked in parallel with the editorial team to evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches to indexing texts and images.

The Holy Cross editorial team included: Jennifer Adams ’10, Jennifer Curtin ’10, Christopher D’Alessandro ’10, William G. Dolan ’10, Scott Dube ’10, Michael Kinney ’10, Joshua Whelan ’10, Katherine Schmieg ’09, Patrick Walsh ’09, and Stephanie Wheeler ’09.

The following students participated in the experimental indexing of texts and images: Michael McGlinn ’08, Greg Kakas ’08 and Danielle Bacon ’09.

Also, digital models of the manuscript were produced by Gabe Weaver ’04, a graduate student in the department of computer science at Dartmouth College. Weaver majored in classics and mathematics and computer science at Holy Cross.

The Holy Cross group was directed by Neel Smith, associate professor of classics, who says the release of this information to the public is significant.

The manuscript is the unique source for two of Archimedes Treatises, The Method and Stomachion, and it is the unique source for the Greek text of On Floating Bodies. Discovered in 1906 by J.L. Heiberg, it plays a prominent role in his 1910-15 edition of the works of Archimedes, upon which all subsequent work on Archimedes has been based. The manuscript was in private hands throughout much of the 20th century, and was sold at auction to a private collector on Oct. 29, 1998. The owner deposited the manuscript at The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, a few months later. Since that date the manuscript has been the subject of conservation, imaging and scholarship.

Archimedes was arguably the greatest mathematician of antiquity. His writings creatively blend ideas from pure and applied mathematics to solve an astonishing range of problems, from whimsical puzzles to fundamental mathematical values (e.g., he showed how to approximate pi to an arbitrary degree of precision), and mathematical models for physics (e.g., in hydrostatics, and mechanics).

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