HERCULANEUM
Destruction and Re-discovery
Villa of the Papyri
In late 1748 or early 1749 well diggers came across what turned out to be the belvedere of a sumptious Roman villa.  For six years the remains of the building were explored by tunnelling operations under the supervision of Karl Weber, a Swiss engineer acting on behalf of Cavaliere Alcubierre.  He made detailed plans of the layout of the villa that were well ahead of their time, a copy of which are shown here.
View Enlarged
Grand Peristyle
Ornamental Pond
Original
Atrium Villa
The villa stretched for more than 250m along the shoreline.  It would appear that it was originally built in the first century BC, as a formal atrium villa, and that it was subsequently extended to what we see today.  (The J. Paul Getty  Museum  in Malibu,  California,  based on Weber's plans, gives a good good idea of what it would have looked like - see picture)
The tunnelling was not only arduous but also dangerous due to the build up of gases in the shafts. However, due to the excavators persistence over 90 statues were eventually uncovered before pressure from the residents of Resina forced Alcubierre to abandon the excavations in 1765.

On the western side of the building is a large peristyle over 90m long and 35m wide, with an ornamental pool running down the centre.  The peristyle contained many fine statues in bronze and marble including the five 'Dancers of Herculaneum' which can be seen in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.
There were also many busts of Greek men of letters including philosophers and statesman outside and inside the villa, lending credence to the belief that the owner was a reader and intrellectual.

In 1752 an astonishing find was made when a tunnel was extended, opening up a room lined with shelves and crates stacked with scrolls.  'Scrolls' may be too fine a word, for what they found was a collection of  blackened cylinders that at first were a mystery to the excavators.  On examining some broken fragments, however, it was discovered that the cylinders were indeed scrolls containing Greek text written on scorched papyrus.
 
All attempts to read the papyri (altogether over 1800 scrolls were recovered) resulted in the destruction of the document, until Antonio Piaggio, a priest from the Vatican Library, created a mechanical 'unroller'.  His process was extremely slow, but it did allow the documents to be read.  Most of the scrolls have turned out to be the work of Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher of the first century BC.
 
Much of the villa remains to be excavated (over 2500 sq m).  Excavations in the 1990s revealed two previously undiscovered levels, but since then there has been little further progress.  The Italian government is currently insisting on a policy of conservation and not excavation, being more interested in protecting what has already been uncovered.  A feasibility study has been undertaken to determine the best way to proceed with the villa. Until such time as the study is complete, no further excavation work is likely to take place.
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