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Ancient history

Reading the Herculaneum Scrolls

Herculaneum is often called the sister-city of Pompeii. Both were destroyed and paradoxically preserved by the eruption of the volcano in AD 79, but differently. 

Everyone knows the story about Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius. It’s as famous as the Dead Sea Scrolls. But did you know that the city of Herculaneum (or Ercolano) met a similar fate? Join Kenneth Lapatin, curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, for a discussion of the book, Buried by Vesuvius: The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum. 

Would you introduce yourself and explain what you do as curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum?

As a curator, my primary duty is caring for and interpreting the Getty’s collection of ancient artifacts. I also organize temporary exhibitions.  In all of my projects I work closely with conservators, mount-makers, registrars, designers, educators, editors, publishers, and other colleagues.

I was trained as a classical archaeologist (at Berkeley and Oxford), have excavated both on-land and underwater in England, Greece, Italy, and Israel, and before coming to the Getty in 2002 was a professor of ancient art at Boston University.

When do you first remember falling in love with ancient Greek and Roman art?

I have always been interested in history, and remember that when my parents first took my siblings and me to Europe when I was 15 I was fascinated by the ancient Egyptian collections in the British Museum and the Louvre.

I remember distinctly during my second term as an undergraduate at Berkeley, where I was pursuing a major in English, being mesmerized by a slide projected onto a screen of the statue of Apollo that graced the west pediment of the temple of Zeus at Olympia, in Greece.

That was the beginning of my long-standing admiration for Greek and Roman sculpture. 

I turned my attention to studying Greek and Latin literature and history, and eventually turned to ancient art and archaeology. My interests eventually expanded beyond sculpture to include architecture, painting, luxury arts, and much more.

Listen to Kenneth Lapatin and other scholars discuss reading the Herculaneum Papyri.

Was Herculaneum destroyed at the same time as Pompeii?

Herculaneum is often called the sister-city of Pompeii.  It is located at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius, to the west, while Pompeii is further south.  Both were destroyed and paradoxically preserved by the eruption of the volcano in AD 79, but differently. 

Pompeii was covered more by ash, and was buried more shallowly, so although rediscovered after Herculaneum (in 1748 vs. 1738) it was easier to excavate and more is visible to visitors today. 

Herculaneum was buried much more deeply by hot volcanic gas and mud, which has hardened considerably with time, and thus excavation is more difficult, but preservation is better.  From Herculaneum we have fragile, usually biodegradable things like wood and papyri (ancient book rolls) preserved.

The exhibition Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri focuses exclusively on finds from this one spectacular building, and in this regard is quite different from other exhibitions that have focused on daily life in the Vesuvian cities and other topics.

What is the Villa dei Papiri and why did J. Paul Getty model the Getty Villa after it?

The ancient villa takes its modern Italian name from the collection of ancient book rolls recovered there in 1752 and 1753—the only ancient library to survive from the Greek and Roman world.  The papyrus scrolls were carbonized by the heat of the eruption, but preserved, whereas most other scrolls (papyrus was the paper of the ancient world) have degraded over time. 

J. Paul Getty was an admirer of ancient Rome and owned a villa on the Bay of Naples.  He visited both Pompeii and Herculaneum several times in his long life and knew well the finds from the ancient villa as they are displayed prominently in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, although the site itself, excavated by underground shafts and tunnels in the 1750s, remains mostly underground.  Getty even wrote some short fiction featuring the site and its sculpture. 

Although he never saw the ancient villa itself (most of it remains deeply buried even today) he decided to build his museum in its form in part because he sought to create a setting for his collection that was appropriate: to place his ancient art in the kind of building it might have been seen in. 

I think the fact that most scholars believe that the ancient Villa was built by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, a Roman senator of the highest rank and the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, also appealed to Getty, who was an admirer of Caesar and sought to associate himself with European aristocracy.

Give us a sampling of the impressive archeological finds from Herculaneum.

In addition to the papyri, which are unique, the Villa dei Papiri also housed the largest single collection of sculpture from any building in the ancient world, about 90 statues (in both bronze and marble), as well as frescoed walls, spectacular marble and mosaic floors, and—discovered only in 2007—the components of luxurious ivory-veneered wooden furniture. 

These are all on display in the exhibition, many for the first time.

Have scholars been able to read the Herculaneum papyri?

Yes. Although about half remain tightly sealed within a volcanic matrix, several hundred have been opened, though not without damage. 

Most contain philosophical treatises by Philodemos of Gadara, a follower of the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus.  It is known that Philodemos’s patron was Lucius Calpurneus Piso Caesoninus, which is why we think he may have owned the Villa.  Other Epicurean texts were found at the Villa, and a few Latin texts as well as Greek ones.

Who was Antonio Piaggio and how did he try to read the Herculaneum papyri?

Antonio Piaggio was a Piarist monk who worked at the Vatican Library in the mid 1700s, who was sent to Naples to help open the papyri.  He was meant to stay only a few months, but remained for four decades. 

He developed a technique, inventing a machine that used a kind of traction system, to open the papyri. We have one of his machines in the exhibition, on loan from the National Library in Naples, as well as some of the fragile original carbonized papyri. 

Piaggio’s method was a great advance on just slicing the papyri open to reveal ancient texts within or infusing them with gas, or mercury to separate their rolled layers. 

Those early attempts damaged or destroyed some of the scrolls.  Piaggio was much more careful, but even his method resulted in tears and other damage to the papyri, and as more of the more easy-to-open scrolls were opened, and the more intractable scrolls remained, less and less work was done on the unopened scrolls.

What is on the Herculaneum texts that have been successfully read?

Most of the texts are treatises of Epicurean philosophy written in Greek, but there are also works by Latin authors.  This is important for dating the collection as a whole, and thus understanding the “life” of the Villa, as well as its owner. 

These texts are also very important for the history of Greek philosophy and Hellenistic literature. 

New technologies offer the possibility of opening the still-closed scrolls non-invasively thought a process called “Virtual Unwrapping” using micro-CT scanning and machine learning to reveal their hidden content.

Introduce the new Getty Museum exhibition associated with Buried by Vesuvius.

We are hugely indebted to our partners in Italy: the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, the National Library of Naples, and the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum. 

All of the finds from the eighteenth-century excavations of the Villa dei Papiri are housed in the Archaeological Museum, and they have lent 40 wonderful objects: life-size bronzes and marbles, and frescoes, as well as the original excavation plan drawn by Karl Weber, the Swiss military engineer who oversaw the excavation for the King of Naples in the 1750s. 

The papyri, recognized as books, were transferred from the Archaeological Museum to the National Library early in the 20th century, and this is the first time they have ever crossed the Atlantic. 

The Archaeological Park of Herculaneum, meanwhile, is now in control of the site and the latest finds from partial excavations of the 1990s and early 2000s have generously been lent by it.  The exhibition also features a new CGI reconstruction of the Villa dei Papiri courtesy of our friends at the Museum of Virtual Archaeology in Herculaneum, working with specialists from the Archaeological Park, and rare documents from the Bodleian Library in Oxford about the efforts of George, Prince of Wales (later King George IV of England) to continue to unscroll and study the papyri after the death of Father Piaggio.  And the exhibition also includes several rare early publications from the libraries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Getty Research Institute.

What three items would you most want to show visits to the Getty Museum’s Herculaneum exhibit?

I don’t know if I can limit myself to just three. 

Karl Weber’s plan of the ancient villa is not only a crucial document for the recovery of the still buried building (and was used by Getty’s architects to design the modern museum), but is also of great importance as the first known archaeological plan of any site, which plots the find spots of individual artifacts, and thus provides information about their ancient context.

The papyri, too, are fascinating, even if not aesthetically pleasing objects. 

We have an amazing group of large-scale bronzes on display, including the famous pair of Runners, two of the five so-called “Dancers” – for which we offer a new interpretation – and the amazing Drunken Satyr, which came to Los Angeles several months before the opening of the exhibitions so that Getty conservators could study and stabilize it for future generations. 

And we display several of the most recent finds  recovered in the limited excavations of the 1990s and 2000s, including the amazing marble figure of a goddess preserving much of its ancient paint, and the ivory and wood furniture components I mentioned above. 

Sorry that that’s more than three.

What is a particularly fascinating research question associated with Herculaneum that remains unsolved?

Much remains unknown about the town, which has only been partially excavated.  We don’t know where its forum was, or its Capitolium (the main temple), or the temple to Hercules, which must have been an important feature of a town called Herculaneum. 

As for the Villa dei Papiri, it remains mostly underground, and new partial excavations in the 1990s and early 2000s have revealed additional levels, rooms with wonderful frescoed walls and stuccoed ceilings.  These have only been partially cleared. 

Some scholars hope for addition scrolls that might contain… not Hellenistic philosophy, but lost plays of Sophocles or Euripides or other famous Greek or Latin literary texts. 

Meanwhile, there is greater hope for the non-destructive virtual unwrapping of the already excavated scrolls that have not yet been opened.  The three scrolls that crossed the Atlantic for the exhibition stopped at UCLA on the way to the Getty Villa.  There, at the Dental School, they were scanned in micro-CT machines and the data is currently being processed. 

Perhaps in weeks, months, or years, the still closed scrolls from the ancient villa will reveal some of their secrets.

Further reading

Herculaneum Italy resources

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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