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Palimpsests are reused pieces of parchment, usually made of calf, lamb, or goat skin. These scrolls or books were washed or scraped clean until the papers could be used again. 

The word palimpsest comes from the Latin, “palimpsestus,” meaning “again” and “scrape.” The term dates back to Ancient Greece, in which they use wax tablets like scratch pads. With a stylus, writers would write and then smooth the wax over and start again.

As time progressed, writers in Western Europe began to use parchment that was far sturdier than paper. It was durable enough to be used more than once. Some of the texts that were most commonly overwrite include legal and church documents that had become obsolete. But, there were some rules. Records show that during the year 691, a decree forbade the destruction of papers related to the scriptures or the church fathers. Only those documents that were already damaged in some way could be overwritten. Scholars have noted that it’s very rare to find an entire work written as a palimpsest. 

Palimpsest pronunciation: pa-luhmp-sest
Palimpsest definition and meaning

Definition of Palimpsest 

A palimpsest is a document, usually from a scroll or a book, that has multiple layers of text on it. The initial layer was scraped or washed off, and the paper was reused. This often results in both layers of text being visible. Unlike today’s paper, most palimpsests are on lamb or calfskin. These resources were expensive and not readily available, meaning that they needed to be reused.

The writing was washed from the parchment using milk or sometimes oat bran. But, the removal of the writing was often not permanent. It would reappear as time passed, meaning that modern scholars can read both the original and the secondary excerpts. It was only in the 20the century that scholars have had the technology to read the defaced text. Through chemical means, they can restore the writing to its original intensity without overly damaging the paper. Ultraviolet light is an even less invasive means of seeing what’s under the surface. 

Innovations in digitization have also helped this process. For example, a multispectral filing can increase the contrast of the faded ink. This often means that it can be read by the naked eye. One of the most useful techniques in recent years is X-ray fluorescence imaging. It reveals the iron in the ink. 

Examples of Famous Palimpsests 

There are a few famous examples of pamplisests. A few are explored below: 

Sanna Palimpsest

The Sanna Palimpsest is one of the oldest Quranic manuscripts. It is also known as the San’ā or Sanaa Quran and was discovered in the wall of the Great Mosque of Sana’a in Yemen. It was found in1972 by workers who were renovating the building. They were unaware of its significance and placed the papers in sacks. Later it was identified as a palimpsest Quran in 1981. The paper holds two layers of text. The upper is a mostly standard version of the Uthmanic Quran.

The lower, which was overwritten, contains more variations on the standard Uthmanic text. It can be read with the help of ultraviolet light and digital processes. The lower text was reconstructed and published in 2012. 

Novgorod Codex

The Novgorod Codex is the oldest book of Rus. It was found in 2000 and is a famous example of a palimpsest. Three bound wooden tablets, which contain four pages filled with wax, play host to at least dozens, if not many more, texts. Each time they wrote, they wiped out the previous work. They span a period of two or three decades. It’s thought to belong to the 11th century or the later years of the 10th century. 

The book was discovered during an excavation of the city of Novgorod in the soil. They measure 9 x 15 x 1 cm, and they have a 15 x 11.5 cm indentation filled with wax, as noted by Wikipedia. The text is related to psalms. 

Codex Theodosianus

Codex Theodosianus was a collection of laws compiled by Theodosius II that stretched back to Roman emperors since 312. 

Codex Zacynthius

The Codex Zacynthius is a Greek document that dates to the 6th century. It’s a palimpsest on vellum. The upper pages contain information about the Gospels, like lessons, and the lower was used to write 1:1-11:33 of the Gospel of Luke. The lower text is, unfortunately, the one of most interest to scholars. It was found on the Greek island of Zakynthos. It is 86 pages long and was written by two different scribes. 

Archimedes Palimpsest

A parchment palimpsest that contains two works of Archimedes. These works were thought lost before the document was discovered. They are “Stomachion” and “Method of Mechanical Theorems.” “On Floating Bodies” was also discovered and is the only known version of the text. The latter is a Greek book that is thought to have been written around 250 BC. It is partly in Greek and partly in medieval Latin and was written with the intention of determining the way different solids float in fluid.

The palimpsest was extensively studied in Baltimore at the Walter’s Art Museum. There, it underwent an extensive imaging study for almost ten years. Scientists used digital images from different spectral bands, like ultraviolet, to make the underlying text readable. In 2007, a new text, Aristotle’s Categories, was found in the paper. It is 9,000 words long. 


What are the characteristics of a palimpsest? 

Palimpsests are documents that contain two layers of text. The first was washed or scraped off in some way to make space for the second. The owner of the parchment wanted to reuse the substrate for another piece of writing they determined was more important. 

Why did authors create palimpsests?

Palimpsests were created because mediums on which to write were rare, and those that were available were quite expensive. In Ancient Rome, Greece, and even in more recent times, such as the Middle Ages, palimpsests allowed writers and everyday people to save money. 

How do you use palimpsest in a sentence? 

One could say, “I’ve been studying this palimpsest for a long time.” Or, “Have you heard about this palimpsest? It contains two different texts.” 

  • Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
  • Anagram: a rearrangement of the letters in a word or phrase to create a new word or phrase.
  • Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
  • Epistolary: a book made up of a series of documents, usually letters, diary entires, or newspaper clippings.
  • Genre: a type of art, literary work, or musical composition that is defined by its content, style, or a specific form to which it conforms. 
  • Inference: a literary device that occurs when logical assumptions are made. 
  • Main Idea: the central message that the writer wants to convey.

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