Palimpsest: From the Greek for “scraped again,” a piece of parchment, papyrus, or other manuscript page from which the original text has been removed so the material may be reused. Because good writing surfaces were costly and often scarce in ancient and early medieval times, before paper became a common commodity, old ones were washed and scrubbed so they could be overwritten. In some cases, scholars have been able to recover original texts based on traces that have shown through over time or by using various technological means. In literary criticism, palimpsest has also been used metaphorically to refer to texts with several levels of significance. With reference to the pictorial arts, the term refers to a reused canvas with one work painted on top of another.
EXAMPLES: The Archimedes Palimpsest, composed of parchment taken from several books in the thirteenth century to make a Christian prayer book, contains other underlying texts, including a tenth-century copy of various mathematical works by the third-century B.C. Sicilian mathematician Archimedes, a Neoplatonic philosophical text, and material by the fourth-century B.C. Athenian orator Hyperides. The idea of the palimpsest functions on several levels in Salman Rushdie’s novel The Moor’s Last Sigh (1996), which involves a painter who continually paints portraits of a woman he once loved, only to cover them over with hackneyed commercial works that he sells at extravagant prices.