Herculaneum’s Villa of the Papyri was one of the most luxurious Roman properties to have been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The sprawling waterfront estate (on which the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is modeled) likely belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law of Julius Caesar. It contained countless masterpieces of ancient art, but its greatest treasure might have been its library—and the nearly 1,800 papyrus scrolls that were discovered there in the mid-eighteenth century.
It is the only library from antiquity to have survived. When Vesuvius erupted, the Villa of the Papyri was hit by a 600-degree Fahrenheit blast of hot gas and ash, which instantly carbonized the papyrus scrolls, transforming them into charred cylindrical lumps, and, surprisingly, preserving them.
Since their discovery more than 250 years ago, scholars have attempted to unroll and translate the fragile scrolls, many of which contain Greek texts on Epicurean philosophy, particularly some written by the philosopher Philodemus. Recently, a team of scientists has pioneered a new, safer method of deciphering the texts. Since unrolling causes irreparable harm to the brittle artifacts, researchers have turned to noninvasive technologies such as X-rays, digital photography, and microscopy.
“The results show that it is possible to read the Herculaneum papyri without needing to open them, which always involves the risk of damage and loss of content,” says Vito Mocella of the National Research Council in Italy, which leads the project.