Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2023 Issue

Lurking Deep Under the Print of an Ancient Manuscript Lies an Even Older, Missing Astronomical Masterpiece

Picture shows how erased older writing (yellow) is brought out by multispectral imaging (photo credit: Museum of the Bible).

You never know what you may find if you examine an old book very closely...v e r y closely. An amazing discovery of ancient Greek astronomical readings, a star chart, has been found beneath the writing of a more recent work, a mere one millennium old. What is remarkable is this contains part of the star chart created by Hipparchus, a Greek astronomer and mathematician who lived from roughly 190-120 BC. Hipparchus was known to have created the first comprehensive chart of the stars but no one outside of antiquity had ever seen it. It was known only from later writings referencing it.

 

The manuscript in question is Codex Climaci Rescriptus, an important Christian document. It is a palimpsest. For those unfamiliar with the term, that is when an old vellum or parchment manuscript has its writing scraped off so new text can be entered. It was a common practice before the use of paper as vellum pages were expensive to make. It was cheaper to simply remove old, no longer needed text and reuse the vellum page for something new. The Codex was underneath the more recent writing and under some of it the star chart.

 

It has been known that this was a palimpsest for many years, but more recently, multispectral imaging has been developed that can “see” through the surface text to the washed text below. It is never completely removed. Light at various wavelengths is shined on the document and with the aid of a computer program it is able to reveal the underlying text.

 

On the surface there were Syriac texts from the 10th or 11th century. Under it, was the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, a perhaps 6th century work in Palestinian Aramaic. It is considered extremely important as it contains some of the Gospels in the language closest to that Jesus spoke. It was believed to have been created in Judea, a mountainous region in what is now southern Israel.

 

The original manuscript made its way to St. Catherine's Monastery in Egyptian Sinai. That was perhaps in the 8th or 9th century, and that is where the original text was scraped and washed and the newer text inserted. It was there for many centuries until its pages, in separate groups, appeared for sale in Cairo. At that time, British twin sisters and biblical scholars Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson were looking for ancient biblical texts to purchase. In three stages between 1895-1906, they purchased most of the manuscript.

 

When the sisters died, they left the manuscript to Westminster College. They had earlier given the college a tract of land in Cambridge for a new campus. In 2009, Westminster decided to sell the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, and delivered it to Sotheby's, which put an estimate of £400,000-600,000 on it. It did not sell. However, in 2010 it was sold to the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby, for placement in their planned Museum of the Bible. That is where it resides today.

 

While the Green family's interest was biblical, later multispectral imaging found something different on some of the pages. It is scientific rather than theological material. Imaging has revealed a portion of Hipparchus' star chart, in particular, the part around the constellations Corona Borealis, Draco, Ursa Minor and Ursa Major.

 

Not a lot is known about Hipparchus other than he is said to have been born in Nicaea, now located in Turkey, and that he died on the island of Rhodes. That leaves a lot of time, roughly 70 years, in between. Only one of his works is known to still exist and his star chart wasn't it. However, he was cited in various later texts which is why we know of his extensive work. This star chart is not his original work but was likely copied six centuries after he lived. Among those who used his work was Ptolemy, the best known astronomer from antiquity.

 

A report was recently published in the Journal for the History of Astronomy by Victor Gysembergh, Peter J. Williams, and others entitled New evidence for Hipparchus’ Star Catalogue revealed by multispectral imaging. This is a fairly technical article, not easy for non-astronomers to fully understand. Most notable among their findings was that Hipparchus' celestial map was amazingly accurate, within 1° of the actual stellar coordinates. There had been speculation that Ptolemy simply copied Hipparchus' catalogue. This has been shown not to be true, because while Ptolemy referenced Hiapparchus, his star catalogue is not the same. Despite his coming along centuries later, Ptolemy's was not quite as accurate.

 

Hipparchus' star catalogue listed 850 stars. Computerized ones today now list over one billion stars. That in no way diminishes Hipparchus' accomplishment as his chart was created long before telescopes, let alone computers, were invented. It was the most accurate one for a good 1,500 years.


Posted On: 2023-01-03 02:41
User Name: mairin111

Very informative, Michael; and your
coverage is better than what I spotted
in the recent news cycle. A real education
here for readers unfamiliar with a range of
terms, subjects, historical figures.
- M. Mulvihill, Collector.


Rare Book Monthly

  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000
  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Manuscript Masterpieces from the Schøyen Collection
    London auction, 11 June
    BROWSE NOW
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Holkham Hebrew Bible. In Hebrew, decorated manuscript on vellum [Toledo, 2nd quarter 13th century]. £1,500,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. In Coptic, manuscript on papyrus [Upper Egypt, middle 3rd century / 4th century]. £2,000,000–3,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The Geraardsbergen Bible. In Latin, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Southern Netherlands, late 12th century]. £700,000–1,000,000
    Christie’s, Explore now : Jean de Courcy (fl. 1420). The Chronique de la Bouquechardiere. In French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1480]. £200,000–300,000
    Christie’s, Explore now: The ‘Catherine de Medici’ Hours. In Latin and French, illuminated manuscript on vellum [Paris, c.1485]. £120,000–180,000
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions