Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Buried Books of Herculaneum: Part 8

...approximately 400 scrolls had been opened and read, with approximately one in ten of those written in Latin as opposed to Greek. This fact, in agreement with popular ancient Roman culture, suggested that a still-buried Latin library probably existed within the house. If so, it is still there...

Part 7 of this series continues the story of the excavations of Herculaneum, as we seek to unravel the answer to the Novel Travelist mystery: Why was the Villa dei Papyri never fully excavated?

Here, at last, we conclude this story.


This true Buried Books of Herculaneum mystery is detailed in fiction in The Vesuvius Isotope. Inevitably, in presenting the answers to this Novel Travelist Mystery, I also give away some of the punch lines of the novel. Readers interested in The Vesuvius Isotope are encouraged to stop reading here until they have completed the novel. You may order your copy on Amazon (print or Kindle version,) (Nook version) or (Kobo version.) Or purchase a SIGNED copy at

And without further delay, please consider yourself forewarned that from this point forward, there are spoilers.


Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and the first decades of our new millennium, the Villa dei Papiri excavations have been reopened and halted again several times. There have been three predominant obstacles in the way.

The first is the constant flooding and poisonous gases of the ancient ruins, which lie several feet below sea level. It seems modern technology can extract thirty-three trapped miners from beneath several meters of pure rock, but has not entirely found a solution to these conundrums. I suspect that this issue is only secondary to the others below.
Villa dei Papiri, floor plan of Carlo Weber, ~1750

The second hurdle to completing the excavations is the location of the Villa dei Papiri, which is - quite mysteriously - now contested. The first map of the villa was generated in the 1700s by Carlo Weber. Weber’s contemporaries were amazed at its accuracy and detail, and the exact locations of each room within the villa were undisputed for two hundred years. Until today.

The most recent effort to excavate the Villa dei Papiri was initiated in the 1990s. Following the reliable maps of Karl Weber, an excavation crew bored into the belvedere, or pavilion, first described by Weber’s men in the 1700s. It was during this excavation that the crew discovered that Weber had only identified the uppermost story of the building. In fact, there were three levels to the sprawling villa.

Then the modern crew changed their minds. Weber’s original map of the villa was declared erroneous. The tunnels were filled back in, and the Villa dei Papiri has been inaccessible ever since.

Resina, Italy, provence of Ercolano
The third - and largest - obstacle is the modern town of Ercolano, which now sits directly on top of the ruins of Herculaneum. Ercolano happens to be Italian crime territory.

The town is the hub of camorra, the Naples Mafia. But unlike Sicilian Mafia which is largely centralized, camorra operates as a loosely tied network of families or clans. Because there is no centralization, the individual members of the camorra network – much like those of al Qaeda – are much more difficult to flush out and prosecute.

The landowners of Ercolano - mostly camorra bosses - repeatedly block the excavations of Herculaneum, demanding exorbitant sums of money for even a cursory, non-disruptive, dig.

The tension between camorra and the government has been increasing dramatically since 2010. That was when a new, massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius was predicted to occur within the next eight years. This eruption could destroy the ruins of Herculaneum and the Villa dei Papiri forever.

The situation is becoming desperate. Many of the buildings of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as many of the major historical sites of Naples, have begun to crumble. Some of this is attributable to natural wear-and-tear, and some not.

On February 15, 2013, a corruption probe into the most recent excavation of Herculaneum was announced. This had been the dig that revealed the second and third stories of the Villa dei Papiri, just before the maps of Karl Weber were declared erroneous and the excavation halted.

Two weeks later, arson destroyed a prominent Naples museum. Camorra was highly suspected. No charges were ever filed. For story and video, click here.

On March 18, 2013, Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera ran a report detailing the crumbling of more than 200 Naples churches.  For story and images, click here.

And so the rift continues between archeologists, the Italian government, and the ubiquitous camorra. But there is hope.  On February 16, 2013, just one day after the corruption probe was announced, restoration of some of the fragile sites of Pompeii was initiated.

With hope, we may one day be able to read the priceless Buried Books of Herculaneum.

"The Villa of the Papyri is unfinished business." - Judith Harris, Pompeii Awakened

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. Great post Kris! I can't imagine being an archeologist in southern Italy. It must be incredibly frustrating. What a great underdog story that would be... Hum... Now you have me thinking.

    1. Thanks Sara! And yeah, I know! I think Alyssa Iacovani, my Egyptologist living in Naples, Italy, deserves a series of her own :)