Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Digging for Manuscripts

There is an interesting article in the Times about the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum. Most readers will know that this is a building, first excavated in the eighteenth century, which gave up an entire ancient library of some 3,000 scrolls. Using modern technology, we can read them (they were badly damaged in the eruption of Vesuvius that buried the villa). In general, the contents of the scrolls have been a big disappointment for amateur classicists as they mainly contain deservedly forgotten works of philosophy and poetry. Some good stuff has turned up, but precious little.

I find all this darkly amusing. People imagine the ancient world's literature must have been amazing and the fact we have lost so much a complete tragedy. Well, it is a pity. But the fact is that the stuff that was preserved are, in the main, the best bits. Their survival is precisely because they were valued more highly and more likely to be copied. True, quite a lot of dross survived too. In general, though, the discoveries from papyri have either confirmed what we already know, or shown that we have missed less than we thought. I've blogged previously about Menander and how his rediscovery in the sands of Egypt was a serious let down. We have since learnt to appreciate his shallow little comedies for what they are, rather than what we hoped they would be.

The Times article speculates about what manuscript treasures might still lurk in the villa of papyri. Digging there will shortly resume although there is no guarantee that there is another library to be found. All classicists have a wish list of what texts they'd like to recover. For me it is largely history rather than science or literature. Top of my list, though, would be Luke/Acts. Given the villa was destroyed in 79AD, the discovery of a Gospel would finally put paid to the arguments that these documents are too late to be reliable.

Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.

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