Palimpsest

July 3, 2010 § Leave a comment

Now that the college year is over at Trinity, workers are going through the dormitories, cleaning and painting. The first image is from a whiteboard that had not been fully erased, and the second is from the side of a filing cabinet where someone had partially peeled off some stickers.

Most writing in the Middle Ages was done on parchment, which was scarce compared to the reams of paper we consume. Sometimes the only way to get a clean surface to write on was to scrape the text off an existing parchment. If the process was not complete, the previous text would show through. These documents, with their layers of words (and meanings) are called palimpsests, from the words palin (again) and psao (scraped).

Both these pictures are like a palimpsest–partial and suggestive; connotative, rather than denotative. They encourage us to imagine what was there and who was there and what meaning the original marks were supposed to convey. By not offering clear answers, they ask us to imagine meanings of our own.

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