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lost library

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  • Jill Littlewood
    January 23, 2005 Focus: The search for the lost library of Rome Robert Harris Even in our age of
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 30, 2005

      January 23, 2005

      Focus: The search for the lost library of Rome

      Robert Harris

      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
      the Papyri.

      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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