A group of British, American and French scholars is calling for the immediate resumption of excavations at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, which was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. The villa, which is near Pompeii, was first explored in the 1750s when archaeologists discovered the only intact library of texts from the Classical era. The papyri found so far are Greek works of philosophy; the hope is that other Greek texts as well as Latin ones by some of the greatest writers of Antiquity may still be underground.
In a letter to the Times newspaper in late March the academics lamented the fact that “there has been no new [excavation] work since 2009…the excavation must be finished”, they wrote. Others believe the focus should be on preserving what has already been exposed, not on finding more. We invited the lead signatory to the Times letter, Robert Fowler, to make the case for excavation, while Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the scientific director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, sounds a note of caution.
In their letter to the Times in London calling for further excavation of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, the academics warned that “another eruption of Vesuvius may put the villa beyond reach forever”. Vesuvius is closely monitored and an updated plan for the evacuation of the population in the “red zone” (increased from 18 communities to the 25 in the red ring above) was issued in 2014 and has been revised again this year.
We spoke to Giuseppe De Natale, the director of the Osservatorio Vesuviano, which monitors the seismic activity on and around volcano, and asked him about the current level of risk to the region. There are four levels of alert in the emergency plan: the current status is “green”, the lowest. De Natale said: “As Vesuvius has been very quiet for a long time, the probability of an impending eruption—within the next weeks or month—is negligible.”
Scientists expect that there will be a period of increased seismic activity before any major eruption, giving enough warning to evacuate the population of more than 600,000. However, De Natale confirmed that there is a 95% certainty that, in the event of a major eruption, the red zone would have a radius of 10km to 12km around the central crater, encompassing Herculaneum and Pompeii. This whole area would be covered in deadly pyroclastic flows of molten rock and gas, which can reach temperatures of 1,000°C and advance at speeds of up to 450 miles per hour.
FOR Robert Fowler
Professor of Greek at the University of Bristol
The Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum contains the only library to have survived intact from the ancient Greco-Roman world. In the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, the scrolls were first carbonised, then miraculously preserved in a flood of airless volcanic mud. Some 1,800 fragments representing perhaps 800 original books were recovered in the 18th century. The hundreds so far identified present a lopsided profile: overwhelmingly, they are books of Epicurean Greek philosophy.
This appears to be the personal library of Philodemus, the leading Epicurean of the first century BC, whose patron was Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar and owner, in all probability, of this villa. Cultivated Romans kept sumptuous libraries in their country homes, where philosophers and artists gathered to discuss literature and ideas. Virgil and Horace were members of Piso’s circle. Philodemus too was a poet. The library would have contained many other books both Greek and Latin. The rest of it is most probably in the southeast corner of the villa, which the early tunnelers failed to reach. The lost works waiting to be found there stagger the imagination.
The villa was rediscovered and partially excavated in the 1990s. The excavation must be finished. Counter-arguments are familiar. Resources are desperately scarce, people say, and should be used for pressing emergencies (Pompeii is falling down), not for digging up new things that only add to the burden of conservation. The trouble is, this argument will always be advanced. It amounts to an argument for never excavating.
Meanwhile, the volcano may erupt again and put the villa effectively beyond reach. It has erupted on average every 20 years since 1631. The last eruption was in 1944.
People say archaeology is not about treasure hunting (highly disputable: define “treasure”). Of course it must be a responsible excavation, not a grab and run. One need not exhume the whole building. The long peristyle can be left to sleep, minimising the disruption to the town above.
The 1990s revealed previously unknown lower levels, offering good reason in themselves for further exploration. But the library makes this building unique. We shall soon have the technology to scan and read the rolls without even touching them. They will not lie around neglected and deteriorating, as has sometimes been charged.
Posterity will not forgive us if we squander this chance. The excavation must proceed.
AGAINST Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
Director of research, faculty of Classics, Cambridge University; scientific director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project
It is hard not to share the enthusiasm of the group of specialists who have renewed their pleas to resume excavation of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum. An initial attempt at full excavation was made in the 1990s, though this only reached one corner of the building and demonstrated not only how fraught with difficulties such an excavation is, but how easy it is to cause damage in the process, and how difficult to conserve what is exposed.
Fourteen years ago, I argued in this newspaper that continued excavation was not a priority compared with conservation. Is the time right now? A decade’s heroic work by the Packard Humanities Institute has addressed many of the existing problems of conservation on the main site at Herculaneum, but the villa may be regarded as a case apart.
Is there an imminent threat to the site of the villa? Volcanic eruption can scarcely do more damage to what lies buried: it is the parts exposed that are most at risk. And the problem is precisely that by exposing them in part, the risks have been greatly increased. The steep embankment around the trench is not stable: the edges constantly crumble and do damage to the protective shelter. This can be addressed by stepping the embankment back, but simply increasing the size of the excavation only moves the problem on.
The gravest risk is from water. The consequence of creating a trench 30m below the ground level of the present city is to release a flow of water. This cascades out of the edge of the excavated area, passing through the lower floors of the villa, precisely those which were not explored by Karl Weber [in the 1750s] and have the most potential interest. One room of this lower floor has been partially excavated, and its rich decoration only underlines the potential interest of this area.
There is a strong case for urgent work to stop the embankment crumbling and the flow of water further damaging the lower floors. This might reveal further papyri. It would certainly reveal finds of great interest. But the logic that drives any modern excavation must be preservation, not the pursuit of a dream.