Battle for the books of Herculaneum

Buried deep in the Villa dei Papiri, covered by the molten lava of Vesuvius, lies one of the finest libraries of the ancient world. But excavation may destroy more than it saves. By Peter Popham They look like lumps of coal, and when the Swiss military engineer and his team who first explored the buried town of Herculaneum in the 18th century encountered them, that was how they were treated: as ancient rubbish, to be dumped in the sea.

But before being hit by a cascade of molten volcanic rock at more than 400C (the so-called pyroclastic flow that inundated the town), these now-blackened and nondescript objects were part of the library of the grandest villa in the town, where the father-in-law of Julius Caesar was regaled with the epigrammatic gems of his in-house Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus.

They were the papyri on which the ancient world preserved its literature, as the tunnelling archaeologists of 250 years ago belatedly understood. Some 1,800 have so far been recovered, and although both papyrus and ink were carbonised, modern thermal imaging techniques have made it possible to decipher them, with the help of a considerable amount of computing muscle.

Half have already yielded their secrets. None are likely to enter the best seller lists: mostly they are works of Epicurean philosophers, like Philodemus, the one-time resident of the villa. Indeed, although he died a century before Vesuvius's disastrous eruption, the papyri discovered so far may well have come from his private library. But experts suspect that only a fraction of the papyri inside Villa dei Papiri ("the Villa of Papyri"), as it is known, have been discovered.

New excavations in the 1990s revealed two more previously undiscovered floors to the villa, below those already explored. But because the entire villa is encased in tufo, the tough stone that results when the pyroclastic flow hardens, a major task of engineering and archaeology is required to find what more remains to be brought to the surface.

A group of classical scholars is now calling for excavations inside the Villa of Papyri to be resumed without delay. Thanks to the fluke of its preservation within the inferno of the eruption, this is by far the oldest extant library in the world. And nobody has a clue what is in it. It is known that its owner when Philodemus was alive was Lucius Calpurnius Piso Cesoninus, a senator and a wealthy, cultured figure who entertained Roman high society down here at his fabulous country pad by the sea. The villa was full of beautiful vases and statues and other works of art, many of which are now in a museum in Naples. The Independent