Mission underway to recover Greek masterpieces from under Vesuvius’ lava

November 14th, 2007 - 2:46 am ICT by admin  
The scrolls, which have been called the holy grail of classical literature, are thought to have been lost when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, burying the wealthy Roman city of Herculaneum and its more famous neighbour Pompeii.

Previous digs have unearthed classical works at a building now known as the Villa of the Papyri, thought to have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, who was known to be a lover of poetry.

In the 18th century, Italian engineers came across the villa, while digging a well shaft.

Tunnels bored into the rock revealed stunning ancient sculptures, and 1800 carbonised papyrus scrolls, mainly the works of Epicurean Greek philosopher Philodemus, who was part of Piso’s entourage.

The artefacts are now all stored at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.

Then, 10 years ago, archaeologists discovered two floors of the villa, as well as the remains of nearby gardens, ornamental ponds, a bath-house and a collapsed seaside pavilion.

The drying of funds, though, led to the excavation work coming to a grinding halt.

Excavation work at the site has now started again. Archaeologists are using picks and trowels to dig out the frescoed corridor or cryptoportico on the lower ground floor.

They are also conserving mosaics and frescoes already found on the top floor to protect them from damp and erosion.

“Work can resume because we are combining archaeology with responsible conservation, which was not the case in the 1990s,” said Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, the director of the British School at Rome and head of the Herculaneum Conservation Project.

Maria Paola Guidobaldi, the director of excavations at Herculaneum, said, the new dig was backed by a further two million pounds grant from the EU and the Campania region, and would last a year and a half.

“We will proceed cautiously - and if we find more papyri or statues, we will be delighted,” Times Online quoted Guidobaldi, as saying.

Some historians believe that the papyri, which may have included lost masterpieces by Aristotle, Euripides or Sophocles, were in the process of being packed to safety when the eruption occurred.

In that scenario, the violent force of the 100mph (160kmh) “pyroclastic flow” of ash, gas and mud, would have scattered the scrolls throughout the 30,000sq ft (2,800sq m) of the villa.

Professor Wallace-Hadrill, member of the excavation tem said, next year work would begin on excavating the basilica, the great hall housing Herculaneum’s legal and administrative centre.

It lies beneath a rubbish-strewn wasteland that was covered until recently by dilapidated modern housing, some of it built illegally with the connivance of the Camorra - the Naples Mafia. The local authorities have bought and demolished some of the buildings. (ANI)

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