Thursday, January 22, 2015

Villa Of The Papyri

In 1752 excavations began near the small Italian town of Ercolano along the Bay of Naples, partially uncovering the largest Roman villa in the region and perhaps in the entire Roman world.  From the second century BC through the third century AD, the Naples region was the equivalent of today's Hamptons on Long Island.
The building found during the excavation had a frontage of more than 250 meters (two and a half football fields) on the bay and covered 30,000 square feet, surrounded by acres of gardens.  It is believed to have been owned in the first century BC by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, whose daughter, Calpurnia, became the third and last wife of Julius Caesar.  The villa was located just north of the town of Herculaneum (for photos of THC's 2013 visit to the town go here), and like the town was buried under 100 feet of volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, an eruption which also destroyed Pompeii.

The magnificence of the villa has impressed all who have seen it and a recreation has been done at the J Paul Getty Museum in Pacific Palisades, California though much of the original still lies buried beneath the ash and a new round of excavation is underway.  But it was what the villa contained that is the most significant and historically important aspect and it is what has given the villa its modern name - Villa of the Papyri.  You can find a virtual model of the exterior and interior of the villa at this link.

Constructed in the early 1970s, the Getty Villa is modeled after a first-century Roman country home.(Reconstruction Getty)

In 1754 the excavators came upon a room filled entirely with what turned out to be 1,785 papyrus scrolls, an intact library from 2,000 years ago.  Unfortunately, the scrolls had been carbonized in the eruption of 79.  Efforts were made to unroll some of the papyri but it proved difficult to unroll without destruction and, in any event, nothing could be read of the contents.   Nonetheless classicists understood the potential.  So much of classical literature has been lost; could the contents of the villa contain some of those "lost" writings?  See, for instance, Robert Cotton's Library Catches Fire.  We know of many famous authors for whom only some of their works have survived - Aristotle, Tacitus, Livy, Archimedes - and of many authors of whom all we know is a reference to them contained in other works that have survived.  Even without knowing the contents, it was recognized that the find was something extraordinary as shown by the gift of six of the rolled scrolls to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. 
scroll-whole.jpg(A rolled scroll given to Napoleon)

During the course of the 20th century some progress was made on deciphering contents of the unscrolled rolls using binocular microscopes, x-rays and digital photography but these techniques did not work on the scrolled rolls which constitute the vast majority of the collection.  The scrolls that have been deciphered were all written in Greek and a number are previously unknown works by Philodemus an Epicurean philosopher.

Now, a scientific team has announced in the January 20, 2015 edition of Nature Communications it has been able to read two of the six scrolled rolls given to Napoleon using X-Ray Phase Contrast Tomography. At this point they have deciphered some letters which, in their words, are 'proof of concept", and believe that the remained scrolls may be able to be read in a decade.   That may sound like a long time but since we've already gone 261 years since the discovery of the scrolls THC thinks it's okay to wait a while longer.  And, by the way, there are indications that in the still unexcavated part of the villa is a second library, filled with scrolls written in Latin!  Perhaps eventually we will find some of the lost classics.

Below is some of what the researchers found on the scrolls.  For more detail read this.


  1. Great read, thanks! dm

  2. So what lost works are you rooting for? New plays of the Greek tragedians and lost books of Livy and Polybius would probably top my list.