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Jan 25
2016

The Lure of Lost Works

by Carrie Kolar


“The Lost Book of …” is a phrase that sends shivers down your spine, isn’t it? It breathes mystery and secrets, and feels vaguely Indiana Jones. However, lost books don’t have to be hidden in booby-trapped temples in far-off rainforests or teach you how to turn lead into gold. Far from flights of science fiction fancy, lost classics and masterworks abound throughout human history. We only have seven of the eighty plays written by Aeschylus, Shakespeare aficionados lament “Love’s Labor’s Won,” and the words “destruction of the Library of Alexandria” cause violent eye-twitches in book lovers to this day. Sometimes, however, treasures that were thought lost can be found. Here, we take a look at a few examples of rediscovered lost works.

The Archimedes Palimpsest

When looking for long-lost works, one of the most unexpected places to find the object of your search is right on the page in front of you. Archimedes of Syracuse was an ancient Greek mathematician, inventor, and engineer, considered one the leading scientists in antiquity and one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. Like many classical scholars, not all of his writings have survived. However, in 1906, a scholar was examining a medieval prayer book, and found that it was a palimpsest, a document written over an older work. Writing materials were expensive in medieval times, so vellum and parchment were scraped clean, the writing dissolved, and the pages were reused. Though the scholar was able to read enough to determine the prayer book contained Archimedes’ work, it has taken scholars decades of research and studying with high-tech equipment to find and translate half of what the palimpsest contains. The lost work of Archimedes within the palimpsest includes the only surviving copy of Archimedes’ The Method of Mechanical Theorems and the Stomachion, as well as new speeches from the Athenian politician Hyperides and a previously unknown commentary on Aristotle dating from the second or third century AD.

The Lost Verse of the Epic of Gilgamesh

Sometimes, life really does echo Indiana Jones. After the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad, the Sulaymaniyah Museum in the Kurdistan region implemented a policy of paying smugglers to keep artifacts from leaving the country, no questions asked. In 2011, one of the smugglers brought a collection of tablets to the museum, including a large tablet covered in cuneiform writing. A professor at the museum saw it and immediately told the museum to pay the asking price – $800. As it turns out, that was an utterly miniscule price to pay to discover lost lines from one of the oldest stories known to man. The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Babylonian story of kings, gods, and monsters, has existed in fragments since the 18th century B.C.E. The discovery of a lost verse of a four-thousand-year old story, probably illicitly unearthed, smuggled to a museum, and recognized by a chance encounter – how’s that for treasure hunting?

The Book of the Dead

In written works the world over, few titles have the ability to fascinate, chill, and tantalize like The Book of The Dead. The ancient Egyptian text is a collection of spells that the recently deceased could use to navigate the treacherous path through the afterlife and into paradise. There isn’t a set text of The Book of the Dead, as wealthier citizens hired scribes to write their own Books, selecting spells that would best help them through their journey. Each Book found increases our knowledge of the funeral rites and spells of the time, and for one hundred years scholars had been trying to complete the Book of the Dead of the ancient Egyptian architect Amenhotep, the pieces of which were scattered across the globe. In Queensland, Australia, a noted Egyptologist chanced upon four pieces of papyrus in a local museum. He was one of the few people in the world who could recognize their significance, and he asked if there were more fragments. There were 8,000. With the discovery of these pieces, scholars can begin to reconstruct the jigsaw of this text, recreating Amenhotep’s Book of the Dead.

“Lost” doesn’t always mean lost forever. Epics, masterpieces, and great works of literature can be found hiding in plain sight. Whether a lost work is twenty years old or two thousand years old, there’s always the chance that you’ll be the one to notice the unusual writing around the edges of an old book, or see the scribbled childhood pen name of a classic author that leads you to rediscover something the world had lost. To increase your chances of finding something amazing, make sure to educate yourself before you go out book hunting. The more you know about your favorite subject or author, the more likely you’ll be to recognize when the stars align and you come across a lost masterpiece.


More of Carrie's work can be found at http://www.proofpointconsulting.com/

 

 

To librarians, booksellers, and collectors there is nothing limited in the subject of books about books. - Leona Rostenberg

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