Experts urge race against time to unearth last secrets of Herculaneum's lost library

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CUT OFF by a muddy pool fed by an ancient river, close to the bottom of an excavation 30 metres deep, archaeologists exploring a villa buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 have found two great doors of carbonised wood.

Behind them could lie a lost treasure trove of Roman scrolls, scholars say, part of the celebrated lost library of the Villa of the Papyri. However, a unique chance to recover great classical masterpieces, lost to humanity for 2,000 years, could fall victim to flooding or a new blast from the volcano Vesuvius, they warn. The leading names of ancient Greek and Roman studies in Britain and the United States are pleading for urgent action before it is too late.

The Villa of the Papyri is described as one of the greatest Roman villas discovered in the world. It was a jewel in the crown of the city of Herculaneum, which served as the luxury seaside resort for the neighbouring city of Pompeii. Once the property of the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, its awe-inspiring scale moved one of the modern era’s richest men, John Paul Getty, to build a reconstruction in Malibu, California, and fill it with his extraordinary collection of Greek and Roman artefacts.

In AD79, however, the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii bought terror and death to Herculaneum. A blast of gas at an estimated temperature of 360C swept through the city. It carbonised bread sitting on the table, cupboards, doors, and people, and did the same for the villa’s precious books.

Herculaneum was buried under 20 metres of volcanic mud, which hardened to the consistency of soft rock, and was later capped by the lava from successive eruptions.

The villa was first discovered by well-diggers in the Bay of Naples more than 200 years ago. Early excavations dating back to the 1790s, much of it funded by George IV, then the Prince of Wales, turned up what were first thought to be sticks of charcoal

However, they were recognised on closer inspection as scrolls, turned to charcoal in the first blast of the volcano’s heat. Eventually they were partly unrolled. The heat that had seemingly destroyed them had actually preserved them.

Work to pick out the charred ink of Latin and Greek began with early magnifying glasses. It picked up in the 1990s with multi-spectral imaging technology, first developed by the US space agency, NASA, to study minerals on planet surfaces. Scientists at the Brigham Young University in Utah, working with staff at the National Library in Naples, have continued to decipher writings from more than 10,000 fragments, painstakingly unrolling and reading the documents.

Most have turned out to be works of Greek philosophy, including writings of Epicurus missing for more than 2,000 years. But it is what lies hidden that is tantalising scholars. Early digs discovered only one level of the villa, with the scrolls; later excavations have shown at least four more levels. "They have discovered these huge doors on the second level," explained the archaeologist leading the dig, Francesca Auricchio. "They have small round windows, closed by glass, which was very precious. This means it was a very important part of the house."

Investigation of a small area behind the doors suggests the rooms there are rich in paintings, statues, and mosaics, Ms Auricchio said. But far more compelling, in this case, is the prospect of finding copies of Virgil’s Aeneid, missing volumes of Livy’s History of Rome, or lost works by Sophocles or even Aristotle. The Villa of the Papyri has already yielded nearly 2,000 scrolls, but a substantial part of the only intact Roman library may lie undiscovered.

"People are very concerned to save this thing," said Richard Janko, professor of Greek at University College, London. He was one of eight scholars who signed a recent letter pleading for the "vital excavations" at the villa to go ahead.

"Flooding now poses a grave danger to the building and its contents," the letter warned. "The excavation must be completed, and the building preserved," it stressed. "Most importantly the books must be brought to light."

Vesuvius last erupted in 1944; but with earthquakes in Naples in 1980, the risk of further eruptions is considered high.

The novelist Robert Harris has added his voice to those pleading for a renewed excavation that experts say could cost 15 million or more. "In cultural terms," he wrote, "this is about as important as it gets."

Many of the original scrolls turned up in boxes, with some scattered across the villa’s garden. It has led to visions of a desperate rush to save some of the precious library as the volcano exploded; less dramatic theories suggest that the scrolls were routinely moved from a storage area to a reading room.

Prof Janko describes the current excavations as something out of Dante’s Inferno; a great gash in the ground, 30 metres deep, with the water level at the bottom kept low by a pump. "There are actually walls sticking out of the water; the wooden doors are there, still intact, and we don’t know what’s behind," he told The Scotsman. "It was an enormously expensive excavation, and the money ran out. I think it cost $30 million [20 million]. The Italian authorities feel, not without some justice, that they have a lot to look after already ."

However, he added: "The reason we feel this site is special, is that it is the only place in the ancient world where we know that a library was buried in conditions that preserved it.

"We have lots of ancient buildings, but a limited number of ancient works of literature, and this is the place we are most likely to find them."

How the secrets of the scrolls are brought to light

THE ANCIENT city of Herculaneum was destroyed in the same volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii in AD79.

Whereas Pompeii was regarded as a commercial centre, Herculaneum is characterised as a seaside resort town with many wealthy residents.

Hot mud that enveloped Herculaneum helped to preserve the buildings over 2,000 years.

The partially excavated Villa of the Papyri, which was initially explored by the Bourbons through a series of tunnels in 1752, is where all 1,800-2,000 Herculaneum papyri were found.

Windows that can be seen on the lower level would have faced the sea; scholars believe that other papyri may still be buried here on this level.

Although they were excavated in the 18th century, many of the scrolls are so badly carbonised and compacted that scholars have not yet been able to unroll them or learn anything about their contents.

The papyrus layers were rolled around a wooden rod, or umbilicus; many scrolls have a hole in the centre because the umbilicus is missing.

Six of the scrolls were given to Napoleon Bonaparte as a gift, and a fragment of one of them is typical of the fragile condition of the carbonised documents. Despite the deteriorated condition of the Napoleon scroll’s fragment, however, scholars have determined that it refers to the great Roman poet, Virgil.

In the Officina dei Papiri at the National Library in Naples, scholars from around the world are working to read scroll fragments and produce or modify transcriptions of the ancient philosophical texts. In a one-year assignment, a team led by Steve and Susan Booras, of Brigham Young University, Utah, conducted multi-spectral imaging on carbonised scroll fragments at the National Library.

The team imaged more than 10,000 fragments during a one-year assignment at the library, where the scrolls are stored.