Libraries, lost and found
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
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
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 the Papyri.
Once the villa had been stripped, 200 years ago, the tunnels were sealed.
But last week a group of the worlds 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 Papyri.
Apart from the texts of Philodemus, hundreds of other lost works of Greek
philosophy including half of Epicuruss 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
Zenos writings to come to light; they had all been lost in later
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 Gigantes 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 thought.
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 Gigantes theory that
the villa had at least one other library.
Gigante died in November 2001 but his campaign for renewed excavation, far
from dying with him, gathered strength. Eight of the worlds 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 Virgils 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
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
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 doesnt 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
Boorass 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.