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Basic Information

In ancient times, writing materials were expensive, and so it became common to recycle old pieces of parchment by washing the old writing off them. The resulting piece was called a palimpsest, from the Greek meaning "scrape it again". This was orignially done with the wax tablets used for writing by the ancient Romans, which could be easily smoothed over and reused, but it could also be done with papyrus and, most often, with parchment, which was more expensive, therefore worth the trouble; and more durable, therefore capable of taking the abuse. The parchment would be washed with milk and oat bran, which would wash away much of the ink and bleach it. Eventually, though, the faded old writing would become visible again. In the later Middle Ages, scholars began using powered pumice to scrape off the old writing, which proved much more permanent, although undoubtedly harder on the paper.

Because the old writing on Palimpsets can be recovered, they are a valuable source for modern scholars of documents that would otherwise have been destroyed. In the 19th Century, chemical methods were used to bring out the faint writing. Today, ultraviolet light and X-ray photography can revel the original text without damaging the parchment.


Game and Story Use

  • Information needed by the PC's might be hidden in a palimpsest and they might have to determine how to reveal it.
    • By magical means in a fantasy campaign
    • Or by technological means such as chemical treatments, UV light, or computer imaging.
  • A palimpsest could be used as a metaphor for how computer memory works: new data is written over old, but the old data can still be recovered if you know how…
  • It can also be used as an illustration in a Time Travel campaign, if it is possible to "rewrite" the past, and yet have traces of the original timeline decipherable.
  • This also means that scrap parchment has at least some resale value - and as with modern paper recycling, valuable information is sometimes thrown away by mistake.
  • Likewise, "reconditioned" parchment could turn out to hold useful recoverable data.
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