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British scholars call for the excavation of the Villa of the Paryri
David Packard says wait, when the Italians are ready my US foundation will pay for it

By Martin Bailey

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 million.

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 priority.”

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 future”.

The Villa of the Papyri By Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
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.

A parody 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.

Finally, 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 economy.

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 development.

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 unexpected.

The argument for urgency at Herculaneum has consisted in pointing to Vesuvius and the danger of another eruption. This is false, and perversely so.

A mantle 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.

That 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 conservation crisis.

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 been found.

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 crisis.

The writer is director of the British School at Rome and also of the Herculaneum Conservation Project.


Thursday, 19 May 2005

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