In search of Western civilisation's lost classics

The unique library of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, buried beneath lava by Vesuvius's eruption in AD79, is slowly revealing its long-held secrets. A cluster of the villa's papyrus scrolls, in much the same state as they were found 250 years ago, lies in a display case in the Biblioteca Nazionale's Herculaneum reading room. The individual scrolls, which extend in some cases to 9m unrolled, look not unlike charcoaled arboreal limbs left at the bottom of a campfire. A group of six rolls, compacted by the weight of volcanic debris, has emulsified into one unsightly pile.

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