A palimpsest is a manuscript page from a scroll or book that has been scraped off and 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 rather bookish 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, 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.
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. 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. Innovative digitized images aid scholars in deciphering unreadable palimpsests. 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.
A number of ancient works have survived only as palimpsests. Vellum manuscripts were over-written on purpose mostly due to the dearth or cost of the material. In the case of Greek manuscripts, the consumption of old codices for the sake of the material was so great that a synodal decree of the year 691 forbade the destruction of manuscripts of the Scriptures or the church fathers, except for imperfect or injured volumes. Such a decree put added pressure on retrieving the vellum on which secular manuscripts were written. The decline of the vellum trade with the introduction of paper exacerbated the scarcity, increasing pressure to reuse material.
Cultural considerations also motivated the creation of palimpsests. The demand for new texts might outstrip the availability of parchment in some centers, yet the existence of cleaned parchment that was never overwritten suggests that there was also a spiritual motivation, to sanctify pagan text by overlaying it with the word of God, somewhat as pagan sites were overlaid with Christian churches to hallow pagan ground. Or the pagan texts may have merely appeared irrelevant. Texts most susceptible to being overwritten included obsolete legal and liturgical ones, sometimes of intense interest to the historian. Early Latin translations of Scripture were rendered obsolete by Jerome's Vulgate. Texts might be in foreign languages or written in unfamiliar scripts that had become illegible over time. The codices themselves might be already damaged or incomplete. Heretical texts were dangerous to harbor: there were compelling political and religious reasons to destroy texts viewed as heresy, and to reuse the media was less wasteful than simply to burn the books.
Vast destruction of the broad quartos of the early centuries of our era took place in the period which followed the fall of the Roman Empire, but palimpsests were also created as new texts were required during the Carolingian renaissance. The most valuable Latin palimpsests are found in the codices which were remade from the early large folios in the seventh to the ninth centuries. It has been noticed that no entire work is generally found in any instance in the original text of a palimpsest, but that portions of many works have been taken to make up a single volume. An exception is the Archimedes palimpsest (see below). On the whole, Early Medieval scribes were indiscriminate in supplying themselves with material from any old volumes that happened to be at hand.
To the present day survived about sixty palimpsest manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Uncial codices:
The word palimpsest also refers to a plaque which has been turned around and engraved on what was originally the back.
In planetary astronomy, ancient lunar craters whose relief has disappeared from subsequent volcanic outpourings, leaving only a "ghost" of a rim are also known as palimpsests. Icy surfaces of natural satellites like Callisto and Ganymede preserve hints of their history in these rings, where the crater's relief has been effaced by creep of the icy surface ("viscous relaxation"). They are characterized by fast projectile which penetrates the cold, icy crust. Inward flow of slushy surface causes the surface to retain this upflowing of water from the past.
In medicine it is used to describe an episode of acute anterograde amnesia without loss of consciousness, brought on by the ingestion of alcohol or other substances: 'alcoholic palimpsest'.
Several historians are beginning to use the term as a description of the way people experience times, that is, as a layering of present experiences over faded pasts.
Palimpsest is beginning to be used by Glaciologists to describe contradicting glacial flow indicators, usually consisting of smaller indicators (i.e., striae) overprinted upon larger features (i.e., stoss and lee topography, drumlins, etc).
Gore Vidal titled his 1995 memoir "Palimpsest".
Architects imply palimpsest as a ghost —- an image of what once was. In the built environment, this occurs more than we might think. Whenever spaces are shuffled, rebuilt, or remodeled, shadows remain. Tarred rooflines remain on the sides of a building long after the neighboring structure has been demolished; removed stairs leave a mark where the painted wall surface stopped. Dust lines remain from a relocated appliance. Ancient ruins speak volumes of their former wholeness. Palimpsests can inform us, archaeologically, of the realities of the built past.
Thus architects, archaeologists and design historians sometimes use the word to describe the accumulated iterations of a design or a site, whether in literal layers of archaeological remains, or by the figurative accumulation and reinforcement of design ideas over time. An excellent example of this can be seen at The Tower of London, where construction began in the eleventh century, and the site continues to develop to this day.
Archaeologists in particular use the term to denote a record of material remains that is suspected of having formed during an extended period but that cannot be resolved in such a way that temporally discrete traces can be recognized as such.
Egyptologists use the word for texts and representations inscribed in stone that have been scraped away, either completely or partially, often with a plaster filling being applied, and then a new inscription carved on top.
PALIMPSEST. The custom of removing writing from the surface of the material on which it had been inscribed, and thus preparing that surface for the reception of another text, has been practised from early times. The term palimpsest (from Gr. raw, again, and i'dw, I scrape) is used by Catullus, apparently with reference to papyrus; by Cicero, in a passage wherein he is evidently speaking of waxen tablets; and by Plutarch, when he narrates that Plato compared Dionysius to a (L13Xtov 7raXiAfifoTOV, in that his tyrant nature, being SvoEK7rXVros, showed itself like the imperfectly erased writing of a palimpsest MS. In this passage reference is clearly made to the washing off of writing from papyrus. The word 7raXiiukaros can only in its first use have been applied to MSS. which were actually scraped or rubbed, and which were, therefore, composed of a material of sufficient strength to bear the process. In the first instance, then, it might be applied to waxen tablets; secondly, to vellum books. There are still to be seen, among the surviving waxen tablets, some which contain traces of an earlier writing under a fresh layer of wax. Papyrus could not be scraped or rubbed; the writing was washed from it with the sponge. This, however, could not be so thoroughly done as to leave a perfectly clean surface, and the material was accordingly only used a second time for documents of an ephemeral or common nature. To apply, therefore, the title of palimpsest to a MS. of this substance was not strictly correct; the fact that it was so applied proves that the term was a common expression. Traces of earlier writing are very rarely to be detected in extant papyri. Indeed, the supply of that material must have been so abundant that it was hardly necessary to go to the trouble of preparing a papyrus, already used, for a second writing.
In the early period of palimpsests, vellum MSS. were no doubt also washed rather than scraped. The original surface of the material, at all events, was not so thoroughly defaced as was afterwards the case. In course of time, by atmospheric action or other chemical causes, the original writing. would to some extent reappear; and it is thus that so many of the capital and uncial palimpsests have been successfully deciphered. In the later middle ages the surface of the vellum was scraped away and the writing with it. The reading of the later examples is therefore very difficult or altogether impossible. Besides actual rasure, various recipes for effacing the writing have been found, such as to soften the surface with milk and meal, and then to rub with pumice. In the case of such a process being used, total obliteration must almost inevitably have been the result. To intensify the traces of the original writing, when such exist, various chemical reagents have been tried with more or less success. The old method of smearing the vellum with tincture of gall restored the writing, but did irreparable damage by blackening the surface, and, as the stain grew darker in course of time, by rendering the text altogether illegible. Of modern reagents the most harmless appears to be hydrosulphate of ammonia; but this also must be used with caution.
The primary cause of the destruction of vellum MSS. by wilful obliteration was, it need hardly be said, the dearth of material. In the case of Greek MSS., so great was the consumption of old codices for the sake of the material, that a synodal decree of the year 691 forbade the destruction of MSS. of the Scriptures or the church fathers - imperfect or injured volumes excepted. The decline of the vellum trade also on the introduction of paper caused a scarcity which was only to be made good by recourse to material already once used. Vast destruction of the broad quartos of the early centuries of our era took place in the period which followed the fall of the Roman Empire. The most valuable Latin palimpsests are accordingly found in the volumes which were remade from the 7th to the 9th centuries, a period during which the large volumes referred to must have been still fairly numerous. Late Latin palimpsests rarely yield anything of value. It has been remarked that no entire work has been found in any instance in the original text of a palimpsest, but that portions of many works have been taken to make up a single volume. These facts prove that scribes were indis criminate in supplying themselves with material from any old volumes that happened to be at hand.
An enumeration of the different palimpsests of value is not here possible (see Wattenbach, Schriftwesen, 3rd ed., pp. 2 99-3 1 7); but a few may be mentioned of which facsimiles are accessible. The MS. in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, known as the Codex Ephraemi, containing portions of the Old and New Testaments in Greek, attributed to the 5th century, is covered with works of Ephraem Syrus in a hand of the 12th century (ed. Tischendorf, 1843, 1845). Among the Syriac MSS. obtained from the Nitrian desert in Egypt, and now deposited in the British Museum, some important Greek texts have been recovered. A volume containing a work of Severus of Antioch of the beginning of the 9th century is written on palimpsest leaves taken from MSS. of the Iliad of Homer and the Gospel of St Luke, both of the 6th century (Cat. Anc. MSS. vol. i., pls. 9, to), and the Elements of Euclid of the 7th or 8th century. To the same collection belongs the double palimpsest, in which a text of St John Chrysostom, in Syriac, of the 9th or 10th century, covers a Latin grammatical treatise in a cursive hand of the 6th century, which in its turn has displaced the Latin annals of the historian Granius Licinianus, of the 5th century (Cat. Anc. MSS. ii., pls. I, 2). Among Latin palimpsests also may be noticed those which have been reproduced in the Exempla of Zangemeister and Wattenbach. These are - the Ambrosian Plautus, in rustic capitals, of the 4th or 5th century, re-written with portions of the Bible in the 9th century (pl. 6); the Cicero De republica of the Vatican, in uncials, of the 4th century, covered by St Augustine on the Psalms, of the 7th century (pl. 17; Pal. Soc., pl. 160); the Codex Theodosianus of Turin, of the 5th or 6th century (pl. 25); the Fasti Consulares of Verona, of A.D. 486 (pl. 29); and the Arian fragment of the Vatican,"of the 5th century (pl. 31). Most of these originally belonged to the monastery of Bobbio, a fact which gives some indication of the great literary wealth of that house. By using skill and judgment, with a favouring light, photography may be often made a useful agent in the decipherment of_obscure palimpsest texts. (E. M. T.)