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Excavations at Pompeii

[This record dates from 1755 giving an insight into the excavations that at Pompeii that had been in progress since 6 Apr 1748. From this account it would seem the goal was a treasure trove of antiquities, with the king as the zealous collector. Missing from the activity of the times, it would seem in this letter at least, is a careful archaeological interest in the people of Pompeii and their lifestyle. The reference to pockets trapped in the volcanic layers of noxious gases (possibly carbon dioxide or hydrogen sulphide) have not been experienced in more modern excavations, and it may be the original fears were groundless. The spellings from the original text have been retained, such as “hight” and “cieling.”—Webmaster]

LXVI. An Account of the late Discovories of Antiquities at Herculaneum, [Pompeii,] &c. in [a letter] from Camillo Paderni, Keeper of the Museum Herculanei, to Thomas Hollis, Esq; Translated from the Italian by Robert Watson, M.D. F.R.S.

An Extract of a Letter from Camillo Paderni, dated at Naples, June 28, 1755.

[p. 490] HIS majesty the king, my master, is always increasing his taste for matters of antiquity, which he loves with the zeal of the most passionate antiquary; for he not only makes all the necessary trials and enquiries in these cities, which have been covered by Mount Vesuvius, but extends his researches into other parts of his kingdom; and buys also, with great pleasure, every piece of antiquity of value, that he can meet with. Fortune seconds his endeavours, and makes him at this day one of the happiest virtuosi in Europe; and we may say, that he hath no occasion to take pains to seek for good fortune, for she always attends him; as Sir, you, may see in the following instance. In April, his majesty was acquainted, that a little beyond La Torre della Nunziata, where stood the ancient Pompeii, in digging near the amphitheatre, there was discovered a marble capital of the Corinthian order, and that it was necessary to examine farther into what might be there. His majesty had formerly caused some workmen to dig in this place, but upon account of a certain vapour or memphites, which arose here, and which was so active, as to destroy any one, who had remained ever so short a [p.491] time in it, his majesty suspended the work: but being assured, that this vapour had ceased to arise, he ordered one of his engineers, who had visited the place, to make the necessary trials to begin again. Immediately there were found two pilasters of white marble about ten feet high, fluted on every side, with capitals and bases of the Corinthian order. On one side of these pilasters they have found a series of nine other pilasters about seven feet high, equally wrought with the larger: there were likewise five other pilasters on the side of the other great one, which in all will amount to sixteen; and are of one piece, exclusive of the capital and the base, except one, which is composed of two pieces. They were all excellently preserved, and were standing; forming a portico before a building; the nature of which I cannot undertake to explain, because I do not care to commence author from the relation of others, before I have examined things with my own eyes. I can only write what I have seen. When I was there, little was discovered, and I have not since had an opportunity of going thither on account of my bad state of health. By this one view I could perceive, that this was a great square building. All the buildings, which are in Pompeii, are of the same constitution with those of Herculaneum and Stabiæ; that is to say, of one story. I did not see the whole of the supposed front of this fabric, and so cannot determine decisively about it, till the whole be cleared by digging. The portico is continued on the sides,, but the pilasters are not of marble, but of brick covered with stucco, and coloured with green, and are not fluted like those of marble. One then only of the sides is yet undiscovered, and we must wait to [p.492] see the side opposite to the front, and the rooms within, to be able to speak decisively. But to return and speak of the front; I can tell you, that it was all painted in the grotesque manner; but little, and that ill preserved, remains. There were no ornaments of stucco, or marble; the walls indeed were coloured, and there were some small niches formed in the walls, each of which corresponded to one of the pilasters, and consequently there were eighteen in number. In several of them were found certain figures, some of earth, others of marble, in this order; first was placed one of marble, then one of earth: those of marble were nine small Hermæ, among which there is a Hercules crowned with oak, some satyrs, fawns and Bacchantes. Two of them are of the old red, and the other of the old yellow marble, and are of an indifferent style. Those of the baked earth consist of four figures. The first is a Barbarian king, who stands erect with his right hand under his chin in a pensive manner, and wears his chlamys clasped with a fibula upon his right shoulder. But what makes this figure the more curious is, that the whole body forms a vase, on the back of which there is a handle to hold it by. Behind the head there is a little tube, through which water or some other liquor was poured in, and the mouth of the figure is open, through which the liquor was poured out. The hight of it is about ten inches, and the style rather low. The second figure is of the fame hight and character, as to the workmanship; but what it represents, renders it singular. I will content myself with describing its action and its ornaments, and leave to others the explication of [p.493] the rest. This figure seems sitting with its legs stretched out, which are distorted like those of some dwarfs. It has a great head; the mouth, eyes and nose of which are extremely overcharged. It is drest in the præfexta. Upon the breast there is the bulla aurea, the string of which surrounds its neck, and is held with the right hand; with the left it holds the tablettes called pugillares, on which the ancients placed wax, and wrote on it with a style. These pugillares are exactly like those, which I dug up at Herculaneum, and which I preserve in that museum. Besides it bears a great Priapus, and behind is seen the breech. This was made for a vessel, such as that described above, except that besides that the mouth of this figure is pierced, the liquor can also be poured from the Priapus. The third figure is intirely like to the preceding, except its dress, which is rustic, and bound round the waist with a cord, to which there is fastened somewhat, that cannot be made out, but which appears to be a little case to hold something: the rest is not overcharged, but is rustic. It holds in its right-hand a loaf, and its left hand is covered with its dress, and, like the other, it shews its breech and Priapus. I am of opinion, that such vessels were used for drinking, the liquor coming out of the Priapus, this being not unusual with the antients, as Juvenal, in his second satyr, gives us to understand; Vitreo bibit ille Priapo.

The last figure represents the Roman charity. She is sitting, and with her left hand embraces her father, and with her right presses the breast which her father sucks; who is expressed in this figure totally emaciated. This doth not, like the others, form a vessel, [p.494] but simply exhibits the story. The style is moderate, its hight near the same as that of the others. It is to be observed, that this last groupe is covered with a varnish or glazing, like that which covers earthen plates and things of that kind. There were found in the before-mentioned niches two little busts of baked earth, of the same hight; one wants the head. This is all that is found in that part of the building, which I suppose to be the front.

There is no doubt but that formerly others have dug at Pompeii, and particularly in this very spot, which the miners, who are expert and faithful, have perceived. As our miners had at first great skill and diligence, so they are become by time more perfect, insomuch that none can execute better that which they do, particularly in digging at Herculaneum, where they never see the light, but at the hours set apart for rest. These were the first, who discovered, that others formerly had dug more, by certain strokes, the marks of which remain on some of the pictures, which are on the walls of that chamber, which was the second that they discovered.

Their opinion is confirmed by the matter, which fills up the said chamber, not being in the same state that it usually is. So that we may conclude, that they have formerly dug here, but irregularly; fortune having a mind to reserve the best part for the king my master. There are several pieces of painting cut out, which cannot yet be well seen, because they are in their cases.

If those, who before his majesty dug in this place, had done it regularly, in my opinion they could not [p.495] have missed a treasure, which is found in a little closet, the dimensions of which are about six feet in length, and four in breadth, discovered the 13th of last month. In this place was found a very fine tripod about three feet high, extremely well preserved. In short, it is one of the most beautiful pieces of antiquity in the whole world. It is formed of three satyrs, young, and all exactly alike. Their heads are most beautiful, with a chearful countenance, and the hair well disposed with a ribband, that surrounds the head. Upon the forehead there stand two small horns, which are united. The right hand rests upon the side of the body, and the left is open, with the arm somewhat extended. They have a great satyresque priapus. The legs are united, and they place their feet upon round bases, which have been turned in a lathe, and then covered with leaf silver. Their tails are twisted round a ring, which is suspended thereby. The three satyrs support with their heads the hearth of the tripod, which is of excellent workmanship, and hath three moveable rings, which serve to remove the tripod from one place to another. One of these rings is wanting, and could not possibly be found. Whence we may suppose, that anciently it was likewise wanting. Upon the hearth there is another ornament united to its circumference, and forming a kind of radiated crown, which crown hath also two handles, but not moveable. These serve to place the crown upon the hearth. Among other particularities, it is observable, that the bottom of the hearth is not of brass, like the rest of the tripod, but of baked earth. The above-mentioned closet, where this tripod was found, is all painted, and intire, with the [p.496] cieling unhurt. In the walls of it there was a table of white marble fastened in the wall itself, which we might call a side-board, and which was extended along the sweep of the room. Upon this table was found a crescent of silver, about 5 inches in diameter, and on the edge of its middle there are two small holes to receive a string to support it. Perhaps this was an amulet, for we have another of the same metal, but smaller, with its supporter of silver, which hath been long found. Upon the same table there was another amulet of silver about an inch in hight, which represents Harpocrates. This figure hath its finger near its mouth, the lotus on its head, and wings on its shoulders. On the right shoulder hangs a quiver, and its left arm holds a horn of plenty, and leans upon the trunk of a tree, round which there is a serpent, and at the foot of the trunk there stands an owl. There was found a kind of fibula, for such I take it to be, which is of gold, and is extremely well preserved. Its form is round, and made like a great button. On the back there is a gold wire fastened to one side; the other end of which is fastened in a small piece of gold, that is soldered into the fibula. The whole is little more than an inch in diameter. There are found also two other figures; one is of marble about a foot high, and represents a woman;. it is of no great value: the other is of ivory, but there remains nothing but the name, and a part of the face, by which may be perceived, that it is the work of an excellent Greek hand. All the rest consists as it were of minute leaves, which are so brittle that they cannot be united. Its hight is about a foot.

[p.497] What I am now going to describe, was found in the same closet, upon the same marble table, and is one of the most beautiful statues, which I ever saw, and so admirable, that I know not how to begin to describe it. I will first tell you its hight, which is little more than three inches, that you may conceive what pains have been taken with it. It stands upon its feet and is quite naked, and represents a Priapus, which is not satyresque, with a most perfect contrast of attitude, One observes through the whole figure a most perfect skill in anatomy, where the smallest muscle is not lost, and at the same time it seems not dry or hard, but palpable flesh. It is of a noble and excellent style. Its head is somewhat rustic, with a goat's beard and ears. It hath a laughing countenance, turning its head with much grace, and brings its first finger of the left hand to its face. It extends and raises its right-arm, which terminates in a manus impudica. Our Neapolitans and I have seen the same in our peasants about Rome, who frequently wear in their hair a pin, the head of which consists of such a hand; and they say, that they wear this against an evil eye; and in Naples I see some of these pins worn by children. We have found several of these small hands at Herculaneum. It is observable, that these Priapi frequently had this hand; for among the many, which remain under my care, there is one with human ears, and with this hand, which together with the whole arm forms a Priapus. But let us return to our figure. The head is covered with a cap, which is folded down behind; and its base is low and round, and well fitted. In fine this may be called one of the most excellent curiosities.

[p.498] In one of the other rooms there was a fine pair of scales, in which there are some remains of the strings made of a kind of fine coral, and the strings remain in some of the rings. There were found likewise many vessels of earth and fragments of metal.

In the ancient Stabiæ they go on digging; but it is long since any thing of value hath been found, except that in the beginning of this month two small statues of brass were discovered. One represents a Venus, but of no value. The other a Panchea with a rudder, horn of plenty, lotus, modius. and sickle. It is but of ordinary workmanship. Many vases of earth, some of glass, have been found. A great vessel of copper with a handle, a singular funnel, a beautiful little vase of rock-crystal with its cover, and a simpulum or ewer, divers medals, as well silver as copper, well preserved, but common, and various pieces of leaden pipes, have all been found there.

The same may be said of Herculaneum; for since the month of March, after the colossal bust of brass was found, they have discovered nothing of value except one thing, which ought to make much noise among the learned, and which I believe to be the only one of its kind in the world. This is a little leg and thigh of metal covered with silver, and which is five inches long. Upon the external pact of it is described a sun-dial formed upon a quadrant, and as the thigh forms a quarter of a circle, the workman hath taken the center of this quadrant from the extremity or leg of the gammon, and hence hath drawn hour-lines, which with the lines, that mark the months, form the usual compartments, some larger and others smaller, which are divided six by [p.499] six, as well in hight as length. Below the inferior compartments, which are the less, are read the names of the months placed in two lines in a retrograde order, so that the month of January is the last in the first line, which bears the other five following months. In the second line are described the six other months in their natural order; so that the month of December is under January, and so the months shorter and longer, two and two, have one common compartment for each couple. Almost on the edge of the right side, there is the tail of the animal somewhat bent; and this performs the office of the gnomon. On the extremity of the bone, that is, of the leg, or center of the quadrant, there is a ring to hold the dial in an equipoise; and it is supposed, that in that place was fastened its plummet, such as in the like dials is to fall upon the present month to determine the shadow of the gnomon upon the horary lines. It is observable also that as these dials were described upon a plane surface, according to a fixed rule, the surface of this metal ham being in one place concave, in another convex, one cannot easily guess what rule the workman used to describe a dial of so difficult a kind, upon a plane so irregular. This dial was found the eleventh of this month, and was delivered to me; but it was not known what it was, because it had a cover upon it, so that the miners took it only for a piece of iron. My curiosity soon led me to examine it. I begun to discover the shape of a ham,, however I could not persuade myself, that it was so; but afterwards finding, that it was silver, and perceiving the lines, which form the compartments, and the [p.500] characters, which denote the twelve months, I had no doubt about it. I was so pleased with such a discovery, that I went directly to the royal garden, where the king and queen were, to whom I presented it, and to whom it gave great satisfaction. This is all that hath been found in these three places, by digging, since my last letter dated in march.

I must not neglect to acquaint you with what hath been found in a trial, which his majesty made at Cuma, where were situated some sepulchres, which afforded many curious things; an account of which you will not be displeased to read. In May last, our miners opened a tomb of the family Pavilia, which formed a small chamber. On the floor there were three corses, or rather their bones, which were included in four pieces of the piperine stone. These four stones formed for each corps an oblong case. The engineer, who was present at the discovery, told me, that one of these bodies was all covered by a substance unknown to him; but from his relation I comprehended what it was. The corps was covered with a cloth of amianthus, which, as it was large, remained in this situation all on a heap, but calcined by the salts of the earth, for which reason it was necessary to take it up in pieces, it being become extremely brittle. However, to be more sure of my opinion, I had a mind to try it in the fire, where it remained unchanged; whence there is no doubt but that it is amianthus. There were found a great many little pieces of paste as big as beans, which were taken by the miners for confits, but are the confection, which used to be put upon dead bodies. They are composed of myrrh and other spices, and [p.501]

even now retain a very strong smell. There was found some cloth reduced almost to nothing, which had some ornament of gold embroidered upon it, of rather wove into it, as is more probable from the gold thread. Upon the above-mentioned body were found some pieces of paper, for 1 have great reason to think it such from the trials, which I have made upon the old papyrus of which we have about eight hundred volumes. Now I think these pieces to be paper, because they are composed of a matter, which is like that, of which our paper is made; but however I will not pretend to be quite sure; I only plainly give my opinion. This paper on one side is coloured with red minium, on the other it is black. Perhaps they used this sort of paper to write upon, to denote by the colours the happy or unhappy state of the writer. Ovid gives us an example of this in the first elegy of the first book De Tristibus.

Nec te purpureo velent vaccinia fucco,
Non est conveniens luctibus illee color:
Nec titulus minio, nec cedro charta notetur,
Candida nec nigrâ cornua fronte geras.

I think I may with reason judge these fragments to be paper; but I always am ready to submit to the opinion of the more learned. But as every one may speak his thoughts, so I have spoken mine. Besides this paper there were found a mirror of metal, and three tesseræ, which we call dice. Under the corps or bones was found a padlock, through which were passed three iron strigils, and another that was broken. It is remarkable, that in all the other sepulchres, that were opened at Cuma in the month of [p.502] May, there were found a mirror, three tesieræ, strigils, and some very small fibulae of bone. In the above-mentioned sepulchre was found a small, lectisternium, or rather pulvinar deorum, which was very much decayed. It is mounted in iron. The ornaments, which compose it, being of ivory, the rust of the iron hath as it were destroyed the whole. So that there were collected but a few remains of the four pillars, some pieces of the bands, which went round the frame, eight pieces of ivory, of an oblong form, in each of which was engraved a figure of some unknown deity, all of the same design, but in a bad style; and two heads of a horse, which are fellows, and belong to the lectisternium, not unlike that great one of brass, which is now in the royal museum. There were found also several little vases of earthen ware, whose form is this: They have a long neck, with a mouth proportionably streight; the body is oval, which towards the bottom is so small, that they cannot stand upright. The misfortune is, that two of these vases, which are of oriental alabaster, and of the most excellent workmanship, are both broken in the middle.

Near this sepulchre there was opened another, belonging to the freed men of the Pavillia family. There we found many glasses and pieces of earthen ware, and two most beautiful earthen lamps. On one of them there is an Hercules going to flay a serpent with his club, which he holds in his left hand. On the other, there is a priestess of Bacchus, which in one hand holds the sacrifical knife, and in the other the half of a victim. Besides there are two very small wine-glasses, which contain, the one a liquor of the [p.503] color of red wine, the other a liquor more limpid than white wine, but without any smell. In this tomb were found likewise the usual dice, strigils, mirrors and fibulæ. The bones and ashes were in urns made of earth.

Four other sepulchres also have been opened, in all of which were found the usual strigils, mirrors, tesseræ and fibulæ. In one of them was found a little earthen urn with its cover. Within the same tomb there was a small urn of glass elegantly made, containing the ashes of a child. Near the said urn were found several little things, which probably were the playthings of the child; these were two very small goblets of baked earth glazed, with a handle to each; two small water-ewers, of the same materials, with ornaments; these also are extremely small: another vase of common earth, which forms a recumbent ox, on the back whereof there is a hole to receive the water, which was poured out through the mouth; and there is a handle on one side of the body. In this same sepulchre was found a monstrous Priapus of red earth. This figure hath wings, and is much over-charged. All these things, which I have described, are preserved by me in the royal museum, in a separate apartment from, that, in which is preserved what hath been found at Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiæ. I have already filled eight chambers with antiquities; and because those are not sufficient, I shall begin to place many other things, which hitherto 1 have been forced to keep in confusion, in other chambers, which are on the same floor. 1 hope to have the pleasure to see you again in Italy, to admire this treasure, with the sole care of [p.504] which his majesty hath been pleased to honour me. A single volume of the Papyrus is unfolded, which is that, which treats of musick. At length the name of the author, who was called Philodemus, is found written twice, at the end of the piece. The name is written once in a small, and a second time in a large hand, and in a good Greek character. They are now beginning to open, or rather to unroll another manuscript; but hitherto without much success: From some fragments one may collect, that it treats of Rhetoric.

This is what I have to say at present; and for the future, I will not fail to write to you, whenever any thing of value shall be found. I am sorry to send you a letter full of blots and ill expressed; but, my friend, I have taken up my pen and stolen a little time to write hastily to you; for I have so much business, that sometimes I have not even time to dine; so I hope you will excuse me.

[Dr. Watson died on March 2, 1756, soon after his translation of the letter.]

Excerpt from John Martyn, James Allestry and Henry Oldenburg, editors for the Royal Society, Philosophical Transactions, Giving Some Accompt of the Present Undertakings, Studies and Labors of the Ingenious in Many Considerable Parts of the World (1757), 49, Part 2, 490-504. (source)


Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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