The Italian Almanac


Italian News - February 14

A philanthropist has stepped forward to fund excavations at the ancient city of Herculaneum in Italy, where scholars believe a Roman library lies buried beneath 3m of lava from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79. David W. Packard, whose family helped to found the Hewlett-Packard computer company, is concerned that the site may be poorly conserved or that excavation of the library may not continue unless he underwrites the work.

"It is hard to imagine anything more exciting than excavating at Herculaneum," said Mr Packard, who is channeling the money through a family institute. "We have spent around $2 million so far, much of it on conservation work. We have tried to work closely with the Italians, who have all the skills needed. But we can offer a degree of independence and financial security."

There has been concern in academic circles that the already excavated parts of the Roman city are falling into disrepair and that there are no plans for excavating the Villa of the Papyri. The building, which contains the library, once belonged to Julius Caesar's father-in-law. The villa is regarded as one of the most important unexcavated sites in Italy. Previous exploratory digs unearthed 1800 charred manuscripts, many of them unknown or known only through references in other works.

The scrolls were in crates and it appears that slaves were removing them from the libraries when they were inundated with ash from the eruption. Although the scrolls appeared to be in a poor state, scientists at Oxford University have been able to read them after subjecting them to imaging techniques. It is believed that there are thousands more scrolls in the building, much of which lies beneath the modern town of Ercolano, and that they may include lost works by Aristotle, Livy and Sappho.