Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Buried Books of Herculaneum Part 1

Piaggio's Device
In a glass case within the Naples Archaeological Museum is an instrument that resembles an old, battered loom. Long, knotted strands of a charcoal-colored substance hang suspended from it. The cluster looks more like meat curing in a slaughterhouse than what it actually is. It is paper.

This display is dedicated to the Villa dei Papyri, an ancient Roman residence buried and immaculately preserved in the 79AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The villa just happened to be owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

Inside the Villa dei Papyri was a large library containing approximately two thousand papyrus scrolls. Since their discovery in the 1700s, scientists and historians alike have repeatedly undertaken the unwinding of these precious artifacts. Once unwound, they are still legible.  

A papyrus scroll from the Villa dei Papyri
In addition to the large Greek library already uncovered, it is believed that there was probably an entire section of the library dedicated to works written in Latin, which of course may have included those of Julius Caesar himself. It may also contain the works of Octavian, the great nephew of Caesar and his sole heir, who went on to become the first Roman Emperor, Augustus. And the Villa dei Papyri may contain the writings of Caesar's lover and the mother of his only known son: Cleopatra, the enigmatic, powerful, multilingual, highly educated queen from whom no single writing has ever been discovered.  

But if these works do exist, they are still buried.

The majority of the villa was never fully excavated. Over the centuries, the treasure within has been sought by the likes of King Charles of Campania, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benito Mussolini. Tunnels have been excavated and then back-filled. The villa has been bombed, excavated, and bombed again. But the majority of the library remains intact, beneath meters of hardened ash from Mount Vesuvius.

I pose here the question: why? Why, when the Villa dei Papyri may be one of the most important archeological finds, and resources, in European history? Why, when many other areas of Herculaneum have been fully excavated for centuries? Why, when today's technology can readily bore into the depths of the Earth?  

You are invited to join us in solving this mystery: Why was the Villa dei Papyri never fully excavated?

Look here for clues:

The Naples Archeological Museum, Naples, Italy
The Getty Villa, Malibu, California
The Greco-Roman Museum, Alexandria, Egypt
Pompeii Awakened, by Judith Harris

We continue this story in The Buried Books of Herculaneum Part 2.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California. 

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