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A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped off and which can be used again. The word "palimpsest" comes through Latin from Greek παλιν + ψαω = (palin "again" + psao "I scrape"), and meant "scraped (clean and used) again." Romans wrote on wax-coated tablets that could be smoothed and reused, and a passing use of the term "palimpsest" by Cicero seems to refer to this practice.

The term has come to be used in similar context in a variety of disciplines, notably architectural archaeology.



Because parchment, prepared from animal hides, is far more durable than paper or papyrus, most palimpsests known to modern scholars are parchment, which rose in popularity in western Europe after the sixth century. Also, where papyrus was in common use, reuse of writing media was less common because papyrus was cheaper and more expendable than costly parchment. But some papyrus palimpsests do survive, and Romans referred to this custom of washing papyrus,[1] although the reed from which it was made did not grow in Italy.

The writing was washed from parchment or vellum using milk and oat bran. With the passing of time, the faint remains of the former writing would reappear enough so that scholars can discern the text (called the scriptio inferior, the "underwriting") and decipher it. In the later Middle Ages the surface of the vellum was usually scraped away with powdered pumice, irretrievably losing the writing, hence the most valuable palimpsests are those that were overwritten in the early Middle Ages.

Medieval codices are constructed in "gathers" which are folded (compare "folio", "leaf, page" ablative case of Latin folium), then stacked together like a newspaper and sewn together at the fold. Prepared parchment sheets retained their original central fold, so each was ordinarily cut in half, making a quarto volume of the original folio, with the overwritten text running perpendicular to the effaced text.

Modern decipherment

Faint legible remains were read by eye before 20th-century techniques helped make lost texts readable. Scholars of the 19th century used chemical means to read palimpsests that were sometimes very destructive, using tincture of gall or later, ammonium bisulfate. Modern methods of reading palimpsests using ultraviolet light and photography are less damaging. Innovative digitized images aid scholars in deciphering unreadable palimpsests. Superexposed photographs exposed in various light spectra, a technique called "multispectral filming," can increase the contrast of faded ink on parchment that is too indistinct to be read by eye in normal light. Multispectral imaging, undertaken by researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology and Johns Hopkins University, retrieved some four-fifths of the text of the Archimedes Palimpsest. More recently, at the Walters Art Museum where the palimpsest is now conserved, the project has focused on experimental techniques to retrieve the remaining fifth. One of the most successful of these techniques has proved to be X-ray fluorescence imaging, through which the iron in the ink is revealed, even under a forged overpainting.

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