Monday, February 11, 2013

The Buried Books of Herculaneum: A Novel Travelist Mystery

The instrument that unravels a 2000-year-old scroll
In a glass case within the Naples Archaeological Museum is an instrument that resembles an old, battered loom.  Long, knotted strands of a charcoal-colored substance hang suspended from it.  The cluster looks more like meat curing in a slaughterhouse than what it actually is.  It is paper.

This display is dedicated to the Villa dei Papyri, an ancient Roman residence buried and immaculately preserved in the 79AD eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  The villa just happened to be owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar.

Inside the Villa dei Papyri was a large library containing approximately two thousand papyrus scrolls.  Since their discovery in the 1700s, scientists and historians alike have repeatedly undertaken the unwinding of these precious artifacts.  Once unwound, they are still legible.  

A papyrus scroll from the Villa dei Papyri
In addition to the large Greek library already uncovered, it is believed that there was probably an entire section of the library dedicated to works written in Latin, which of course may have included those of Julius Caesar himself.  It may also contain the works of Octavian, the great nephew of Caesar and his sole heir, who went on to become the first Roman Emperor, Augustus.  And the Villa dei Papyri may contain the writings of Caesar's lover and the mother of his only known son: Cleopatra, the enigmatic, powerful, multilingual, highly educated queen from whom no single writing has ever been discovered.  

But if these works do exist, they are still buried.

The majority of the villa was never fully excavated.  Over the centuries, the treasure within has been sought by the likes of King Charles of Campania, Napoleon Bonaparte and Benito Mussolini.  Tunnels have been excavated and then back-filled.  The villa has been bombed, excavated, and bombed again.  But the majority of the library remains intact, beneath meters of hardened ash from Mount Vesuvius.

I pose here the question: why?  Why, when the Villa dei Papyri may be one of the most important archeological finds, and resources, in European history?  Why, when many other areas of Herculaneum have been fully excavated for centuries?  Why, when today's technology can readily bore into the depths of the Earth?  

You are invited to join us in solving this Novel Travelist Mystery: Why was the Villa dei Papyri never fully excavated?  On March 14, 2013, I will present part 2 of this mystery, in which I will begin to reveal my own hypotheses and the rationale behind them.

Look here for clues:

The Naples Archeological Museum, Naples, Italy
The Getty Villa, Malibu, California
The Greco-Roman Museum, Alexandria, Egypt
Pompeii Awakened, by Judith Harris

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a new novel by Kristen Elise. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope on Amazon.

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego, California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. 


  1. Possible hypothesis: Leaving the scrolls buried in the firm ash is the best temporary protection for the scrolls until the Naples museum has time to deal with them.

    Which begs the question, why haven't other museums offered to help excavate?

  2. Sara - interesting hypothesis...

  3. Could be due to the fact that archaeologists and historians working in Pompeii are having a hard enough time keeping together and preserving what already has been excavated. I believe that is the current focus right now and with budgetary issues, it might be awhile before anyone even gets to the villa. One of my former professors researches in Pompeii and the team she works with when she is there focuses on preserving the frescoes and the walls of one insula (block) alone. Have been doing that for years. That might be one of the many reasons.