The Papyri: original texts, their context and preservation

Thanks to the generosity of those who helped fund my honors research through William & Mary, this month I was able to visit the home of the original Herculaneum papyri. I spent time in and around Naples this month, where I saw Herculaneum, the Naples archaeological museum, and (most importantly), the ‘officina dei papiri ercolanesi’ in the national library. The office of the Herculaneum papyri is hidden in a back corner of the Biblioteca Nazionale, but the many staircases and winding corridors I had to navigate seemed a small price to pay for the amazing experience of seeing the original papyri. These texts, now probably about 2000 years old, are not generally available to the public. My thesis advisor, Dr. Swetnam-Burland, wrote a letter of presentation that allowed me to tour this section of the library and even see some of the carbonized texts.

I spent several hours there speaking with several of the curators and researchers present at the time of my visit, and I was able to view, among other things, the only text fully unrolled and preserved in its entirety (a treatise by the epicurean philosopher Philodemus), an original Piaggio unrolling machine, and columns 4 and 5 of the Carmen de Bello Actiaco itself. Looking at the papyrus, which was charred black and warped with heat and age, I was able to pick out a few familiar letters and words. Unfortunately, this particular papyrus is no longer available for detailed study due to its extremely fragile state. Oddly enough, it is not the papyri themselves that present problems for conservation, but rather the materials Piaggio and other early examiners used to treat and display them. The texts have already survived a pyroclastic surge in excess of 500 degrees Celsius and burial for over a millennium under several meters of volcanic rock. They hold up surprisingly well, even in the absence of a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment. However, the heavy paper onto which many of the unrolled fragments were fixed tends to buckle and warp with time and exposure. This gradual degradation can harm the papyri. Innovations in conservation and papyrology seek to prevent continued damage as well as to decipher the papyri that have yet to be unrolled. The researchers working with the papyri shared many of the promising new techniques with me. This visit to the officina dei papiri gave me a chance not only so see the text I am translating, as well as the original line drawings of it made after it was first unrolled, but also to understand better the process by which this Roman text survived the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and showed up in the books and articles I am using for my research.

As I walked out of the library, I was afforded an eerily appropriate view of Vesuvius smoking on the not-so-distant horizon (a combination of natural volcanic activity and wildfires that had recently broken out on its slopes). Being so close to the place where these thousands of papyri were collected and eventually preserved made me appreciate just how miraculous their survival was and is. Generations of archaeologists, conservationists, papyrologists, and philologists have contributed to our understanding of these papyri, and there is still so much left to discover!


Speak Your Mind