Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, Paris
The reason this was a particularly exciting find is that papyrus – like wood, fabric and other organic material – is rarely preserved. The effect of Vesuvius' eruption at Herculaneum, however, which buried the town beneath a forty-foot mudslide, was incidentally to preserve the organic material we normally don't see in typical excavations – including this library of papyri.
Early efforts to unroll the tightly furled papyrus scrolls were sadly unsuccessful, as the fragile burned papyrus disintegrated as soon as it was touched, destroying the contents. However, recent scientific methods have succeeded in reading the scrolls without opening them at all. By X-raying the scrolls, separating the layers from the spiral structure of the papyrus, and then identifying the ink letters written onto the papyrus using phase-contrast imaging, scientists have been able to "read" the texts. The scrolls turned out to be a collection of the works of Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher, whose philosophical texts were previously unknown to us. The image below, excerpted from the publication of results in Nature Communications 6, shows each letter of the Greek alphabet as extracted from the papyrus pictured above. (Further results from the "virtual unrolling" of the Herculaneum papyri can be found here, along with an accompanying video to the Nature Communications paper here.)