Simultaneity I: the palimpsest

[ by Charles Cameron — simultaneity in art, life, theology, war and thought ]


We rip up the past to make room for the present, we staple the present onto the past, we lose much of the meaning our words and images once had in fragments, snatches and colors…

image credit: MR McDonald

Even the staples eventually rust.


Still the past can at times be seen in the present, as earlier writing can still be seen in a palimpsest.

The Archimedes Palimpsest is [and I paraphrase] a Byzantine euchologion or prayer book manuscript, thought to have been completed by April 1229, and probably made in Jerusalem. Much of the parchment the scribes used in making the prayer book came from a earlier book of works by Archimedes, including his “On Floating Bodies” – a treatise of which no other copy survives. It seems the Archimedes manuscript dates back to tenth century Constantinople.

image credit: Archimedes Palimpsest Project

Erase Constantinople from your parchment, cut it and rotate it 90°, and you can build Jerusalem in its place. Peer deeply into prayer using multispectral imaging several hundred years later — and you may find combinatorial mathematics dating back more than two millennia…

What you are seeing in this image above is the workings of a mind two centuries BCE, transcribed in the tenth century CE, and made visible beneath and through other writing from the thirteenth, by twenty-first century tech.

So it is that Archimedes speaks to us today.


A palimpsest, then, is a layering of time on time, and the world we walk and talk in is itself a palimpsest.

image credit: MR McDonald

The enduring, you might say, can be seen through the transient — the zebra crossing through the snow.


To see two times at once — to see history, accurately or otherwise, as a metaphor for today — is to see simultaneously.

As in Sergey Larenkov‘s celebrated photos, in which World War II and the present day coexist:

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