British scholars call for the
excavation of the Villa of the ParyriBy Martin Bailey
David Packard says wait, when the Italians are
ready my US foundation will pay for it
LONDON. Controversy has erupted over
Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri and whether it should be
excavated now or left untouched for future generations. The
villa, which was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79,
was partly excavated in the 1750s, when archaeologists
discovered the only intact library of texts from the Classical
era. The texts already found are Greek, but the hope is that
Latin texts by some of the greatest Roman authors may also be
waiting to be discovered.
The 1,800 carbonised scrolls
were very difficult to decipher and serious study of them only
began in the 1970s. In the early 1990s further excavations at
the villa were undertaken, but work was halted in 1998, when
it was argued that resources should be put into the
preservation of what had already been uncovered elsewhere at
Herculaneum, just south of Naples.
Now some British
scholars are calling for the resumption of excavations at the
Villa of the Papyri, a plea was made by Professor Robert
Fowler of Bristol University and some of his colleagues in the
newly formed Oxford-based Friends of Herculaneum Society.
Although they agree in general that there should be no new
excavations until the parts of the site that have been already
exposed are properly preserved, Professor Fowler believes that
the Villa of the Papyri is an exception. The possibility of
recovering lost texts by some of the greatest writers of
antiquity means that it is vital to concentrate resources on
the search, he says.
Professor Fowler warns that:
“Eventually the villa could be put beyond reach by seismic or
volcanic activity. As long as there is a chance of finding the
rest of the library—and everyone admits there is a chance,
however strong or weak they rate it—we owe it to the world to
do it. Ultimately it is a problem of finding enough resources
for both excavation and preservation.” Some specialists
believe that an excavation could cost up to $20
Outside funding for Herculaneum has already
come from David Packard, whose family helped set up the
Hewlett-Packard computer company. At present Mr Packard wants
money to be devoted to preserving what has been found, rather
than spent on new excavations. His US-based Packard Humanities
Institute is backing the Herculaneum Conservation Project,
which has already spent $2 million. Mr Packard says that “when
the Italians decide it is time to resume excavation at the
Villa of the Papyri, our foundation expects to be in a
position to offer appropriate financial support”—but “for the
present, conservation is the responsible
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the
British School at Rome and also of Mr Packard’s Herculaneum
Conservation Project, agrees. It would be “a scandal” to
expose more of the villa to the daylight, “before we can
guarantee that it would be saved for the
The Villa of the Papyri By Andrew
Search for it now or leave it
safe for future generations?
Few ancient Roman
buildings stir the imagination as much as the villa
immediately outside Herculaneum named after its exceptional
finds of papyri, but equally notable for its collection of 100
statues in bronze and marble.
Since its exploration by
tunnelling in the mid-18th century, it has resonated in the
European imagination, and the ripples of its fame reached the
west coast of America in the mid-20th century when John Paul
Getty based his villa-museum at Malibu on an elaborate
reconstruction. The Getty Villa will re-open later this year,
after five years of closure for rebuilding and improvements.
It will attract attention yet again to the plight of the
original villa, still buried deep under the pyroclastic flows
of 25 August 79 AD.
The debate over its future is often
set in the wrong terms: to dig or not to dig.
of the debate would represent papyrologists as eager to dig
now, and at all costs, in the conviction of discovering
thousands more rolls of papyri and the lost intellectual
heritage of antiquity, versus archaeologists intent on
blocking all further excavation in favour of conservation.
But the issue is not whether to dig, but when, and
how, and under what conditions, with what plans and strategy
for the future.
The reasons for digging remain what
they have long been. It is not just about papyri. Some 1,800
rolls were brought out by Karl Weber and his tunnellers in the
1750s, of these about half have been at least partially read.
The majority of the legible papyri are Greek philosophical
texts, especially by the Epicurean Philodemus. It is argued
that this cannot have been simply a specialist Epicurean
collection, though clearly that is an argument that cuts two
ways. Even the chance of more texts is incentive enough.
But a villa of this quite exceptional magnificence
evidently had many treasures other than its papyri, including
other types of documentation (wooden tablets with legal
transactions and records), and an abundance of other organic
materials, including grain and foodstuffs, fabric and wooden
furniture, such as we find uniquely at Herculaneum, and not at
Pompeii or other normal archaeological sites.
the serious archaeologist will be keen to recontextualise the
villa, and to understand better the circumstances in which
both statues and papyri survived more than a century until the
eruption of 79 AD.
While archaeologists may be driven
by the hunger for new discoveries, politicians are more
interested in the impact on local tourism. Herculaneum
receives a tenth of the number of visitors that crowd Pompeii.
The villa would represent a significant new attraction, and a
boost for the local economy. Italy knows well that the
Vesuvian sites are the jewels in its heritage crown, and that
they must be made to work to enhance its cultural
None of these considerations, however, carries
any note of urgency. The richness of Italy’s archaeological
heritage means there is vast potential for further excavation.
The question is always whether it is more urgent to dig one
particular site rather than another.
The only sane
answer is to give priority to sites which are in pressing
danger of destruction or irreparable damage, due typically to
Some of the most exciting current
excavations on the Bay of Naples are rescue digs: the new
metropolitan line in Naples has revealed the Roman harbour and
a beautifully preserved temple with a stunning inscription
recording the victors in the local festivals; a supermarket
site at Nola and a water-treatment plant at Poggiomarino have
exposed remarkable evidence of Bronze Age settlements,
destroyed and preserved by an eruption of about 1700 BC.
Archaeology in intelligent collaboration with development has
produced results as exciting as they were
The argument for urgency at Herculaneum has
consisted in pointing to Vesuvius and the danger of another
eruption. This is false, and perversely so.
of over 20 metres of volcanic material protects the Villa of
the Papyri from any future volcanic damage more effectively
than any shelter man could design. In proof, it is enough to
look at the layer of lava poured over the villa site by the
eruption of 1631. Iit certainly did no further damage to what
lay below, but another lava flow today, or even major seismic
activity, let alone a major eruption with pyroclastic flows,
could destroy anything actually excavated. Paradoxically, the
villa is safe so long as it remains below ground.
is no reason for leaving it submerged for eternity, but it is
a reason for thinking very carefully before any future
excavation. Already, the excavations conducted over the last
century of the little town of Herculaneum, an extraordinary
gem among sites, have been enough to generate a major
It is one thing to bring an
ancient town “back to life” by excavation, but to keep this
delicate “reborn” patient alive is a massive challenge. The
generosity of the Packard Humanities Institute has made
possible a major initiative to address this challenge, but it
is far too soon to say that the right set of solutions has
The Superintendency of Pompeii, which has
responsibility for the site, has commissioned a major study of
all aspects of the problem, including the impact on the urban
fabric of modern Ercolano of opening a vast pit beneath its
streets and houses.
It is right that it look at every
aspect of the problem in a far-sighted way before leaping to
conclusions. In terms of urgency, the unexcavated part of the
villa stands in no danger.
Equally, in terms of urgency,
the already excavated portions of the same site stand in great
danger. The only responsible way forward is that embraced by
the Superintendency, the Packard Humanities Institute, and the
international world of archaeology: of saving and recording
what we have while there is still time, and planning ahead to
ensure that any future excavations will not add to an existing
The writer is director of the British
School at Rome and also of the Herculaneum Conservation