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main index © Jeff Matthews entry August 2009 updates: Feb. 2014, Jan '15, Mar '16
Everything is related to Naples
Number 131 in this series. Link to all items here.
If only the Pope
had sent some alien paleontologist, maybe a gigantic
version of the mantis shrimp (photo, below), whose
eyes can see everything from ultraviolet through
infrared. But, no, he sent a monk...
The villa covered some 30,000 sq feet (2,790 sq meters) and probably belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso. That is certainly significant, and many of the splendid bronze and marble statues and other artifacts found on the premises have been moved to the Naples Archaeological Museum. (The villa has also been called the Villa dei Pisoni after the presumed Roman owner. (The villa has been reconstructed on the grounds of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California.)
Herculaneum and the villa were first uncovered during the first wave of archaeological enthusiasm during the early Bourbon rule of Naples. The first systematic digger was Karl Weber in the 1750s. Charles III, upon the advice of his capable minister, Bernardo Tanucci, called a commission into existence to study the texts. Attempts to simply unroll the scrolls were not a complete disaster, but some material was destroyed and some turned into jigsaw fragments of text that have yet to be reassembled. Yet, progress was made using an “unrolling device” invented by the Piarist monk, Antonio Piaggio (1713-1797), who was sent from Rome expressly for the purpose of helping to decipher the scrolls. Reports on the contents of the library were published as early as the 1790s, and a 2-volume facsimile edition was published in Oxford in 1825. Photographic imaging started to be used in the early 1900s and the results were published in 1914. In the 1980s they also used an ingenious method devised by Knut Kleve of the University of Oslo of chemically treating the papyri to make them legible.
Recent efforts at deciphering the rolls have used the new technology of multi-spectral imaging. It is a technique developed in the early 1990s for imaging the earth from orbit, but other applications include taking pictures of the illegible Herculaneum papyri with different filters in the infrared and ultraviolet range; thus—since different substances (ink and papyrus, for example) reflect light differently—what appears to normal human vision (but not to that of the mantis shrimp!) to be black ink on black charcoal can be teased apart at the proper frequencies of light into visible, legible ink on papyrus. The imaging and digitizing of the results were done on the premises of the National Library in Naples from 2000 to 2002 by a team from the Center for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (CPART) of Brigham Young University in Utah.
[see updates, below]
The Office for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri at the National Library is named for Marcello Gigante (1923-2001), the scholar who founded the International Center for the Study of the Herculaneum Papyri and, as well, started a department for papyrology at the University of Naples. The National Library currently has an archive stored on 364 CDs containing the contents of 965 papyri broken down into 30,000 separate images. They may be consulted by appointment.
It may be that further excavation of the villa will bring to light additional volumes of other Greek and Roman writers, plus more bronze and marble treasures. It may also be that that will never come to pass because most of ancient Herculaneum is beneath modern Ercolano. There are plans—or least plans for making plans. These are called “feasibility studies."
Library of Naples (which has owned the papyri since
from Jan 2015, below]
update: Feb. 2014 -
A large sloped and stepped retaining wall has now been
completed after five months of work and one-hundred
thousand euros. The purpose of the wall is to shore up
the cliff face that is directly adjacent to the Villa
of the Scrolls. The wall extends for some two-hundred
meters and is 10 meters high in places. "Cliff face"
is not exact, at least not in the sense of the cliff
being of solid rock laid down geological ages ago; it
is really more impacted volcanic material that has
been dug into over the last 250 years in order to
excavate the ancient city of Herculaneum. It is
brittle, exposed to the elements and can crumble. The
wall, itself, employs the ingenious device of what is
called "geomat" construction. A geomat is a large
three-dimensional honeycomb-like affair, the separate
polymer elements of which have been thermally jointed
together, making the whole mat water permeable.
Geomats can be "woven" into almost any configuration
and are used for fixing soil elements, grass and plant
roots on irregular or steep surfaces and even on banks
of rivers to fight erosion. The plant growth comes up
though the mat and makes the wall/mat even stronger as
it grows. The mat can be seeded and
controlled and is ideal for preventing erosion and
collapse. The precious scrolls originally found in the
villa, as noted in the main article (above), have, of
course, long-since been removed to the National
Museum, but with the villa now secure, work can
continue on finding new treasures. (photo:
update: Jan. 2015 - More on the papyri
scrolls (first item, above).