January 23, 2005
Focus: The search for the lost library of Rome
Even in our age of hyperbole, it would be hard to exaggerate the
significance of what is at stake here: nothing less than the lost
intellectual inheritance of western civilisation
Down a side street in the seedy Italian town of Ercolano, wafted by
the scent of uncollected rubbish and the fumes of passing
motor-scooters, lies a waterlogged hole. A track leads from it to a
high fence and a locked gate. Dogs defecate in the undergrowth where
addicts discard their needles.
Peering into the dark, stagnant water it is hard to imagine that this
was once one of the greatest villas in the Roman world, the size of
Blenheim Palace, extending for more than 250 yards along the Bay of
Naples. (An impression of what it must have looked like is provided
by the Getty Museum in California, which is an exact replica.) Its
nemesis, Vesuvius, still looms over it less than four miles away.
When the mountain erupted on August 24, AD79 it buried the villa
under a mantle of volcanic rock 100ft thick, altering the coastline
and pushing the sea back by hundreds of yards.
All knowledge of the great house was lost until 1738, when workmen
sinking a well shaft encountered a mosaic floor. It was too deep to
excavate; instead, over the next 20 years under the supervision of
Karl Weber, a Swiss military engineer, a network of tunnels was hewn
through the debris clogging the great peristyle, the atrium and the
Olympic-sized swimming pool. Cartloads of treasures were brought to
the surface, destined for the art collection of the King of Naples.
Throughout this time, mingled with the sculptures and glassware,
workmen retrieved what looked like lumps of coal which they
unthinkingly dumped in the sea. It was not until 1752 and the
discovery of an intact library lined with 1,800 rolls of papyrus,
that the excavators realised that what they had been throwing away
were carbonised books. The site has since been known as the Villa of
Once the villa had been stripped, 200 years ago, the tunnels were
sealed. But last week a group of the world's leading classical
scholars gathered in Oxford to demand that the site be reopened. They
believe that there is a better-than-evens chance - "quite likely", is
how Robert Fowler, professor of Greek at Bristol University, puts it
- that the villa may have possessed at least one other library still
to be uncovered.
These are scholars, cautious by nature. Their optimism is therefore
worth taking seriously. It follows the first detailed analysis of the
1,800 papyri, now largely unrolled and deciphered thanks to a
technique known as multi-spectral imaging (MSI). What appear to the
naked eye as jet-black cinders are transformed by MSI into readable
text. Thirty thousand images are now legible on CD-Rom; suddenly
poems and works of philosophy are speaking again, 2,000 years after
they were sealed in their cedar-wood cabinets in the summer of AD79.
The author chiefly represented in the collection is Philodemus, an
Epicurean philosopher of the 1st century BC who taught Virgil, the
greatest Latin poet, and probably also Horace. He may indeed have
given lessons to both beneath the porticoes of the Villa of the
Papyri, for it is known that Philodemus was employed in the household
of a powerful Roman senator, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus,
father-in-law of the dictator Julius Caesar. And it is now regarded
as almost certain that Piso - who died more than a century before the
eruption of Vesuvius - was the original owner of the Villa of the
Apart from the texts of Philodemus, hundreds of other lost works of
Greek philosophy - including half of Epicurus's entire opus, missing
for 2,300 years - have been rediscovered. Among them is a treatise by
Zeno of Sidon, who Cicero saw lecture in Athens in 79BC. According to
Richard Janko, professor of classics at Michigan University: "This is
the first copy of Zeno's writings to come to light; they had all been
lost in later antiquity."
Most of the work on the Philodemus texts was carried out by the late
Professor Marcello Gigante of the University of Naples: a small
(despite his surname) and dynamic figure, he gradually became
convinced that the 1,800 rolls so far discovered represented perhaps
only one half of the books that the villa contained. Certainly it
does seem unlikely that Piso - an educated man who was joint ruler of
Rome in 58BC - should have confined himself to this one, narrow
collection. Or that his heirs, equally highly educated, would not
have added to it over the decades.
In the 1990s, on Gigante's initiative, an abortive attempt was made
to reopen the old 18th-century excavations. The project was
eventually abandoned when its funding ran out, but not before the
archeologists had established that the villa was larger than had been
It seems that it was built on two or possibly three levels, terraced
down to the sea. It also appears that slaves were in the act of
carrying crates of books to safety when they were overwhelmed by the
eruption. These lower storeys, with their mosaic floors, frescoes and
painted ceilings - clearly an integral part of the house - all lend
support to Gigante's theory that the villa had at least one other
Gigante died in November 2001 but his campaign for renewed
excavation, far from dying with him, gathered strength. Eight of the
world's leading scholars of ancient history, including professors
from Harvard, Oxford and London, wrote to The Times in the spring of
2002 demanding action: "We can expect to find good contemporary
copies of known masterpieces and to recover works lost to humanity
for two millennia. A treasure of greater cultural importance can
scarcely be imagined."
The signatories have now formed a pressure group, The Herculaneum
Society, which convened in Oxford last weekend, and moves have begun
to raise the $20m (£10.6m) or so needed to dig.
Frankly, it would be cheap at almost any price. Even in our age of
hyperbole it would be hard to exaggerate the significance of what is
at stake here: nothing less than the lost intellectual inheritance of
western civilisation. We have, for example, a mere seven plays by
Sophocles, yet we know that he wrote 120; Euripides wrote 90 plays,
of which only 19 survive; Aeschylus wrote between 70 and 90, of which
we have just seven.
We also know that at the time when Philodemus was teaching Virgil on
the Bay of Naples, the lost dialogues of Aristotle were circulating
in Rome (Cicero called them "a golden river": the essence of ancient
Greek philosophy); they, too, have vanished.
Then there are the missing Latin texts. Is it really likely that a
palace on the scale of the Villa of the Papyri would not have had
contemporary copies of Virgil's Aeneid or the poems of Horace?
Scholars have dreamt of making such discoveries for centuries, but
until the last couple of years they were understandably dismissed as
fantasies. Books in the ancient world were written on papyrus -
strips of plant grown in Egypt and glued together - and papyrus
simply cannot survive for 2,000 years except in freak conditions.
The paradox of the Vesuvius eruption is that its destructiveness
caused it to act as a giant preservative. When the great library at
Alexandria caught fire 1,600 years ago, more than half a million
scrolls were destroyed: the greatest intellectual catastrophe in
history. But the tightly rolled papyri caught in the eruption of AD79
- not only in Herculaneum but also in Pompeii - were first carbonised
and then, when the pumice and ash moulded around them, effectively
sealed in airtight stone vaults.
Now, technology that the great classical scholars of the 19th century
could never have imagined can make sense out of what looks like a
chunk of charcoal. Last weekend when members of the Herculaneum
Society were given a demonstration of MSI technology "they gasped",
according to one witness, "like spectators at a firework display".
The Herculaneum Society, it should be said, is not without its
opponents, among them the highly respected director of the British
School at Rome, Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill. For a start he
doubts whether a new dig will find anything. Weber, he said, whose
mapping of the site was sufficiently detailed to enable the creation
of the Getty Museum, was a meticulous Swiss engineer: "That type of
man doesn't miss anything." But even if he did it would be a "scandal
", in his opinion, to open up a vast new site while Herculaneum
itself is so inadequately cared for.
I walked round Herculaneum last May with Wallace-Hadrill and can
vouch for the accuracy of his description of its lamentable
condition: "Restored roofs are in collapse, broken tiles litter
mosaic floors, the precious carbonised wood crumbles constantly . . .
Pigeons roost under the eaves and the walls are smeared with their
excrement." The Italian authorities have so much heritage to protect
that they simply cannot do it.
To this the Herculaneum Society has three answers. The first is that
the renewed seismic activity, detected recently around Vesuvius,
makes it imperative that the villa is re-entered soon and any
treasures removed to safety. Second, they believe it may be possible
to complete the excavation by tunnelling rather than by exposing the
villa to the elements.
Their third answer is the one hardest to resist. Wallace-Hadrill is
up against a group of determined men and women fired by one of the
most potent of all human dreams: buried treasure. In the words of
Fowler: "So long as there is a chance of finding the rest of the
library - and everyone admits there is a chance, however strong or
weak they rate it - we owe it to the world to dig."
How modern science retrieves ancient wisdom
The technique used to decode the decaying and carbonised papyri was
developed by Nasa to analyse the light from distant stars and
planets, writes Jonathan Leake.
When the light is broken into components by multi-spectral imaging
(MSI), scientists can detect the unique signatures of the elements
and compounds in the body that emitted it.
Steve Booras, an imaging expert at Brigham Young University in Utah,
used the technique on scrolls at the National Archeological Museum in
Naples. The ink characters could be seen in places, but were
impossible to read because there was no contrast between the ink and
the paper under visible light.
Booras's tool was a digital camera sensitive to a far wider spectrum
of light and which could range deep into infra-red wavelengths.
When he and his wife Susan, a fellow researcher, applied a filter
that allowed only infrared light of 900-950 nanometres into the
camera, the long-lost texts reappeared.
The ink had apparently retained a characteristic that made it absorb
infrared light differently from the surrounding burnt papyrus.
"It was a wonderful moment," Booras said.
Membership of the Herculaneum Society costs £50 per year. Contact:
Friends of the Herculaneum Society, Classics Centre, Old Boys'
School, George Street, Oxford 0X1 2RL. Website:
www.herculaneum.ox.ac.uk; e-mail: herculaneum@...
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