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Ancient classics being found

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The unique library of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, buried beneath lava by Vesuvius’s eruption in AD79, is slowly revealing its long-held secrets

STORED in a sky-lit reading room on the top floor of the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples are the charred remains of the only library to survive from classical antiquity. The ancient world’s other great book collections — at Athens, Alexandria and Rome — all perished in the chaos of the centuries. But the library of the Villa of the Papyri was conserved, paradoxically, by an act of destruction.

Lying to the northwest of ancient Herculaneum, this sumptuous seaside mansion was buried beneath 30m of petrified volcanic mud during the catastrophic eruption of Mt Vesuvius on August 24, AD79. Antiquities hunters in the mid-18th century sunk shafts and dug tunnels around Herculaneum and found the villa, surfacing with a magnificent booty of bronzes and marbles. Most of these, including a svelte seated Hermes modelled in the manner of Lyssipus, now grace the National Archeological Museum in Naples.

The excavators also found what they took to be chunks of coal deep inside the villa, and set them alight to illuminate their passage underground. Only when they noticed how many torches had solidified around an umbilicus — a core of wood or bone to which the roll was attached — did the true nature of the find become apparent. Here was a trove of ancient texts, carbonised by the heat surge of the eruption. About 1800 were eventually retrieved.

A cluster of the villa’s papyrus scrolls, in much the same state as they were found 250 years ago, lies in a display case in the Biblioteca Nazionale’s Herculaneum reading room. The individual scrolls, which extend in some cases to 9m unrolled, look not unlike charcoaled arboreal limbs left at the bottom of a campfire. A group of six rolls, compacted by the weight of volcanic debris, has emulsified into one unsightly pile.

In a corner of the room stands a device invented in 1756 by the abbot Antonio Piaggio, a conservator of ancient manuscripts in the Vatican Library, to unroll the papyri by suspending them from silk threads attached to their surface with a paste of fish oil. These were fixed in place by a slice of pig’s bladder. Piaggio’s machine, though painstakingly slow, was used successfully until the beginning of the 20th century. The room also contains a 3m length of scroll unrolled by Piaggio’s machine, with 40 columns of Greek text in a rhythmic procession.

Scholars today, using multi-spectral imaging technology, are able to decipher the otherwise inscrutable surface of black ink on black fabric of the papyrus scrolls. A multinational team has assembled to transcribe the collection. But work has stalled as they await refinement of a new technique, an application of the CT scan, which will allow some of the untouched texts to be deciphered without exposing them to the risk of further damage.

When I ask to view a papyrus fragment from the vaults, …

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Written by Leisureguy

11 August 2008 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

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