Tales From the Crypt
Steve Booras, a computer professional from Provo, Utah, is leading us through a labyrinth that was once a royal palace in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. It's hot, and we're hurrying along corridors lined with books. Lots of books. Lots of books in the way Keanu Reeves says "lots of guns." This vast building, no longer home to the royalty of Naples, is now one of Italy's three national libraries. The serried shelves past which we're rushing look tall and long enough to contain all the words written in Italian since the palace was built a few centuries ago.
If we had time - we being two of Booras' colleagues from Brigham Young University, Booras' son, and myself - who knows what we might find in the slightly dusty data arrays that rise high above our heads? Volta's original research on electricity, firsthand reports of Garibaldi's military campaigns, scandalized local accounts of Lord Nelson's dalliance with Lady Hamilton, any number of things that someone, somewhere, once felt moved to write down. But we don't have time. Booras, a neat man in his early sixties who's wearing a smart blazer, is hurrying us along in an almost white-rabbit way, his need for speed exacerbated by the fact that, although he worked in this Borgesian building for more than a year not so long ago, he doesn't seem completely sure where he's going.
Eventually, we come to a pair of rooms, one light, one dark. The light one has high, uncluttered walls painted in an institutional green. The entire ceiling is made of milky glass, smoothing powerful Neapolitan sunshine over everything below. There are stereo microscopes on some of the utilitarian desks. It is a room for seeing.
The dark room next door, on the other hand, is a room for storing. It is ringed by steel cases with wide, shallow drawers that hold trays containing thousands of blackened tatters. In a display near the shuttered windows are some fused cylinders of cinders; they look like turds that have been burned and then fossilized, or possibly vice versa. And that is, indeed, pretty much what happened to them. But they are not turds. They are papyruses, scrolls like those on which all the great thoughts of antiquity were once recorded. The words on them were written down 2,000 years ago; when they were discovered 1,800 years later, they were the first handwritten documents from the ancient world that modern eyes had ever seen.
The reason this stash of papyruses was preserved is just outside the shuttered windows: Mount Vesuvius. On August 24, AD 79, these scrolls were suddenly covered by 65 feet of fast-flowing volcanic mud. In the succeeding centuries, almost every other papyrus in the world was either burned in a more mundane fire or eaten by rats or cut up in order to be recycled into the next technological solution to the problem of information storage - the book. Meanwhile, these scrolls sat preserved beneath the volcanic rock.
But not very well preserved. The volcano's gases carbonized the scrolls almost instantly, and moisture trapped by mud fused the layers of papyrus together. The fragments that fill the steel cases around the dark room represent two centuries of careful if intermittent work unpeeling and pondering about a thousand of these artifacts. On some of the fragments, there are clearly legible words. But many of the others bear almost no sign of meaning, no matter how fervently scholars strain their eyes though the microscopes next door.
Some classicists believe that the papyruses, extracted in the 18th century from the buried town of Herculaneum in the Bay of Naples, are just the blackened tip of an iceberg of knowledge. The unexcavated parts of the building where these papyruses were found may contain thousands more. It is not entirely fanciful to imagine that they include works of literature and philosophy that have never been seen by modern eyes: lost companions to The Odyssey and The Iliad from the age of Homer, treatises by Plato and dialogs by Aristotle, tragedies by Sophocles, poetry by Sappho. Those shriveled rolls still locked in the rock could one day form the core of a unique library containing the lost roots of Western European thought.
To get from the library we're standing in to that of the classicists' speculations will be quite a journey. It will require large amounts of money and large amounts of luck, careful negotiation of the politics of Italian antiquarianism and the equally careful removal of thousands of tons of rock. And for that library to be all that it can be - for its works to be readable and relatively accessible - it will also require the expertise of technologists like Steve Booras. Booras can read even less classical Greek than I can read Italian, but over the past few years he has done as much as anyone to make the fragments of ancient knowledge stacked in this darkened room legible. It would be wrong to say that Steve Booras and his colleagues will bring to light a lost classical library of the imagination. But they do have their fingers on the switch.
Until the late '90s, Booras had never heard of the Herculaneum scrolls. Nor had most other laypeople - and rather more surprising, a lot of professional classicists were all but as ignorant. Despite their having been the first papyruses recovered by modern scholars, the Herculaneum scrolls never made it into the mainstream of "papyrology," as studies of smaller stashes found elsewhere have come to be called. Richard Janko, a professor of classics at the University of Michigan, says that this neglect by his profession was extraordinary, but that its cause was clear: "They were just so hard to read."
Janko himself first saw the artifacts in 1986. Intrigued by more than a century of neglected scholarship, he traveled to Naples to see what he could make of the slighted texts. Looking back, he concludes that reading the Herculaneum scrolls was the most difficult challenge he'd ever faced