Sunday, January 23, 2005


Globs Blogs on Gobs o' Bogs

In today's Times of London, Robert Harris reports that the Italian town of Ercolano is sitting atop a potential mountain of lost works of Roman literature. The works of a massive classical library, apparently burnt by the eruption of Vesuvius, turn out to be readable:

All knowledge of the great house was lost until 1738, when workmen sinking a well shaft encountered a mosaic floor.... workmen retrieved what looked like lumps of coal which they unthinkingly dumped in the sea. It was not until 1752 and the discovery of an intact library lined with 1,800 rolls of papyrus, that the excavators realised that what they had been throwing away were carbonised books. The site has since been known as the Villa of the Papyri.

Once the villa had been stripped, 200 years ago, the tunnels were sealed. But last week a group of the world’s leading classical scholars gathered in Oxford to demand that the site be reopened..... Their optimism is therefore worth taking seriously. It follows the first detailed analysis of the 1,800 papyri, now largely unrolled and deciphered thanks to a technique known as multi-spectral imaging (MSI). What appear to the naked eye as jet-black cinders are transformed by MSI into readable text. Thirty thousand images are now legible on CD-Rom; suddenly poems and works of philosophy are speaking again, 2,000 years after they were sealed in their cedar-wood cabinets in the summer of AD79.

A great many of the works are by Philodemus, teacher of Virgil and Horace; many others are works that have been lost for thousands of years, including a number by Epicurus. A newly formed advocacy group for digging for further papyri at the site, The Herculaneum Society, is now working to raise the $20 million needed. Harris points out that the potential finds could be staggering: "We have, for example, a mere seven plays by Sophocles, yet we know that he wrote 120; Euripides wrote 90 plays, of which only 19 survive; Aeschylus wrote between 70 and 90, of which we have just seven."

The seeming "destruction" and burial by lava of the villa library is probably what has saved it for us. Only every once in a long while some past disaster leaves this sort of silver lining, and a review yesterday by Aislinn Hunter in the Globe and Mail notes that NYRB Classics -- Bless them! Bless them! -- recently reissued of P.V. Glob's The Bog People, a book which is vastly entertaining simply to pronounce the author and title of. Glob's 1965 study of an Iron Age man preserved in a peat bog "isn't just about science." Hunter writes. "It's also about the wonder and confusion experienced by those in the 19th and early 20th century who came face to face with a disturbingly well-preserved body from the past."

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