They look like lumps of coal, and when the Swiss military engineer and his team who first explored the buried town of Herculaneum in the 18th century encountered them, that was how they were treated: as ancient rubbish, to be dumped in the sea.
But before being hit by a cascade of molten volcanic rock at more than 400C (the so-called pyroclastic flow that inundated the town), these now-blackened and nondescript objects were part of the library of the grandest villa in the town, where the father-in-law of Julius Caesar was regaled with the epigrammatic gems of his in-house Epicurean philosopher, Philodemus.
They were the papyri on which the ancient world preserved its literature, as the tunnelling archaeologists of 250 years ago belatedly understood. Some 1,800 have so far been recovered, and although both papyrus and ink were carbonised, modern thermal imaging techniques have made it possible to decipher them, with the help of a considerable amount of computing muscle.
Half have already yielded their secrets. None are likely to enter the best seller lists: mostly they are works of Epicurean philosophers, like Philodemus, the one-time resident of the villa. Indeed, although he died a century before Vesuvius's disastrous eruption, the papyri discovered so far may well have come from his private library. But experts suspect that only a fraction of the papyri inside Villa dei Papiri ("the Villa of Papyri"), as it is known, have been discovered. New excavations in the 1990s revealed two more previously undiscovered floors to the villa, below those already explored. But because the entire villa is encased in tufo, the tough stone that results when the pyroclastic flow hardens, a major task of engineering and archaeology is required to find what more remains to be brought to the surface.
A group of classical scholars is now calling for excavations inside the Villa of Papyri to be resumed without delay. Thanks to the fluke of its preservation within the inferno of the eruption, this is by far the oldest extant library in the world. And nobody has a clue what is in it. It is known that its owner when Philodemus was alive was Lucius Calpurnius Piso Cesoninus, a senator and a wealthy, cultured figure who entertained Roman high society down here at his fabulous country pad by the sea. The villa was full of beautiful vases and statues and other works of art, many of which are now in a museum in Naples.
It is highly probable that Piso also possessed a large library, as became someone of his wealth and culture: not merely the works of Epicurean philosophy that reflected the special interest of Philodemus, but all the other works, Greek and Roman, with which a man of his civilised tastes could be expected to be familiar: the plays of the Greek tragedians, for example, or the dialogues of Aristotle, or Livy's History of Rome. And given the freakish survival of Philodemus's collection, it is argued, the rest of the library may be in a similar condition: carbonised but accessible. The figure that has been suggested as the likely cost of bringing them back to civilisation is between €20m (£13.6m) and €30m. But the prize, Robert Harris, author of the novel Pompeii, and the scholars argue could be quite literally priceless: our knowledge of the literature of the ancient world could double overnight, with this single excavation.
But at the Villa of the Papyri all is quiet: no drills or jackhammers batter at the villa's tufo shell, no new mines are being bored through the rock, no teams of volunteers sift spoonful by spoonful through the recovered debris.
In fact there is nothing going on here at all.
The villa was built a couple of hundred yards away from the town of Herculaneum, set apart from it along the beach that the eruption of 79AD destroyed. Today it occupies a site adjacent to the ruins of the ancient town, separated from it by a seedy lane lined on one side with old tenements and newer but already shabby-looking apartment blocks strung with washing. Groups of British and American and French tourists pad about through the ruins of Herculaneum, which looks like a fragment of Grozny after the Red Army had been battering it for a couple of years.
The tightly packed houses, shops, temples and taverns are built of diagonally set, cream-coloured stones: all are roofless and with weeds and wild flowers sprouting from the walls, though structurally they look in remarkably good shape.
But nobody pads around the Villa dei Papiri site: it is only open for groups with special permission. When I visited this week it was completely deserted. Behind a high concrete entranceway and massive steel gate, more befitting a municipal refuse site than an important ancient monument, what remains of the Villa of the Papyri is wrapped in its rock-encrusted sleep.
And now the scholars are demanding to know why. Last year they formed the Friends of Herculaneum Society, and with Robert Harris have begun lobbying for excavation to begin again as soon as possible.
Professor Robert Fowler, professor of Greek at Bristol University and a trustee of the new society, said: "Everyone thinks it is possible that there is more to be found, because of the very peculiar, one-sided nature of the library as so far discovered: this is one of the great country houses of one of the great Roman potentates. Where are the other philosophers? Where are the Greek poets? Where are the Latin books? If you were under siege by a volcano, would your first priority be to get the books out? We have an obligation to finish the excavation."
So what appears to be happening is that we've got some lover of Classics using the media to create some hype about the Villa of the Papyri! This is great because when this call to excavate first came out, it was met with a resounding round of indifference. It was brought up again in March, and again seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Now, because of that 'number of the beast' thing, there's been great attention drawn to the technology available to read this stuff and this Independent piece is clearly designed to get folks 'licking their lips in anticipation' of what might be found there. Consider how many mummies are now being CT scanned since they gave Tut the treatment (every week in Explorator there's one). Bravo! Well done! Let's see where it goes from here ....