As I can’t get any sort of privileged access to the papyri from the Villa I walk down the steep hill to the archeological museum in Naples to see the unraveling machine that is permanently exhibited there with a papyrus lodged in its jaws.

The papyri resemble nothing more than large, burnt, crushed-out cigar butts. They were carbonised by the 400 degree gasses emitted from Vesuvius, which instantly killed the residents of Herculaneum almost two thousand years ago.

The rolls have fused together around their sticks and can’t be unraveled. The litany of unraveling techniques that have been attempted over the years amounts to a comedy of human error. In one case, a papyrus was treated with a mixture of ethanol, glycerin and warm water. It dried up and then, in slow motion, exploded into more than three hundred pieces. Countless scrolls have been lost for good in these bungling attempts.

The machine at the museum was invented by Father Antonio Piaggio from the Vatican library, in 1780, and unsurprisingly, it proved to be extremely ineffectual. It is displayed in an ornate glass and walnut cabinet placed in the center of a small room, with a student invigilator in the corner reading his book. “Can I film it?” I ask. “Of course.” It’s a dusty vitrine, and the animal gut used to unwind the papyrus is dessicated. I can’t see even a single character written on the charcoal surface of the fragile papyrus. It vibrates as visitors pace the room, rather like a cobweb.

02.01.2017, Naples