While ruins left by the inveterate builders of the Roman Empire abound throughout the Mediterranean basin, what makes the archeological site of Herculaneum unique is the swiftness of its total disappearance. Buried under 50 feet of lava for 1,700 years, Herculaneum, just 200 kilometers (125 miles) south of the capital, became a time capsule of the daily life of a typical Roman city of its time.
Darkness at Noon
For people living around the bay of Naples two millennia ago, Mount Vesuvius was just a fertile mountain of olive groves and vineyards. Although it had been an active volcano some eight centuries before, it had remained dormant ever since. In spite of violent earthquakes around 63 AD, which we now understand to have been caused by gases building within the cone and trying to force their way out, the local population still entertained a false sense of security.
By late August 79 AD, the pressure had built to a point where the thick layer of hardened lava that was plugging the crater could no longer contain it. There were several days of earth tremors, which nobody recognized as a warning of imminent danger. Finally, one day around midday the volcano exploded, sending an “umbrella pine” cloud of overheated gases and rocks some 20 kilometers (65,000 feet) into the sky and plunging the area into darkness.
The eruption was the first ever to be documented in detail by an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger (61-113 AD), who observed the entire chain of events from his mother’s villa high on Cape Misenum (now Cape Miseno), some 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest across the bay of Naples. The prevailing winds at the time blew this first wave of poisonous gases and debris toward Pompeii, 10 kilometers (6 miles) southeast of the crater. Over the next eight hours, ashes and pumice stones rained down on the city. Roofs began to collapse under the weight. The process was gradual, allowing a relatively large number of its estimated population of 12,000 to 15,000 to escape. But eventually people were trapped as the city became buried under 4 to 6 meters (12 to 20 feet) of volcanic materials.
The Vanished City
Since Herculaneum lay on the shoreline, 7 kilometers (4 miles) to the west of Mount Vesuvius, it was little affected by the first phase of the eruption. Only a few centimeters of ash fell on the city, causing only minor damage but nonetheless prompting a majority of its 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants to flee. During the following night, however, a succession of pyroclastic surges (mixtures of intensely hot gases and ashes) and lava flow overran the entire city. The extreme heat of the first surge instantly reduced any remaining people to skeletons and carbonized all organic matters. By morning the thriving coastal town had vanished, fossilized under 25 meters (80 feet) of volcanic material that gradually cooled into solid rock. And there it remained until the 18th century.
By then, all memory of Herculaneum has been lost, the only indication of its existence and fate coming from antique records, without any information as to its exact location. Settlements had developed on top of the volcanic crust. It was not until 1709 that traces of the antique city were accidentally revealed. During the digging of a well, a wall was discovered that was later found to be part of the stage of the Herculaneum theater. Treasure hunters started tunneling the site and a number of artifacts disappeared before official excavation began in 1738 under the patronage of the King of Naples. The work continued intermitently until 1874, with the finds documented and carted off to museums, most notably the National Archeological Museum in Naples but also to Rome, London and Paris.
Serious archeological work began again in 1874 and continues to this day. But with much of the ancient site abutting or still buried under the modern town of Ercolano, excavation is a slow process. To date, only a quarter of the ancient city has been brought to light. However, the unique conditions of its instantaneous extinction make it a fascinating site for archeologists and visitors alike. By allowing the conservation of the wooden framework of houses, furniture, writing tablets, fruit, bread and even the content of sewers, it offers a detailed snapshot of everyday life far more intimate than has been achieved in other antique centers.
Visitors enter via an elevated boardwalk that offers a bird’s eye view of the entire excavated area and gives a clear idea of how deep it was buried. Herculaneum, which was known in its time not only as a fishing town but also a seaside resort where wealthy Romans built their summer villas, is laid out in a standard grid and easy to explore. The streets are lined with a mix of businesses, apartments and fine private homes where it is possible to wander at will. Many of the grander homes have shops built into their façade, so that the exterior doesn’t always announce the refined atriums graced with central pools, exquisite walls frescoes and ornate mosaics within.
Because this is a working excavation site, some buildings may occasionally be closed to the public. The highlights of my visit include:
The House of the Wooden Screen – This superb villa boasts a soaring atrium and a central marble pool that catches rainwater falling through an oculus in the ceiling. Its vast reception area could be screened off from the remainder of the residence by a set of sliding wooden panels that have survived to this day. The walls are decorated with frescoes of architectural fantasies enhanced with grapevines and birds. It gives an interesting insight into life of affluent society of the time.
The House of the Black Salon – This luxurious house features a small courtyard garden, interesting mosaic flooring and unusual frescoes with a black background covering the walls and barrel ceiling of its main hall. Said to have been the home of a former slave who had achieved the status of Roman citizen, it is also singled out as out as an example of the social mobility that could occasionally be possible in Roman society.
The Hall of the Augustales – Dedicated to the cult of Augustus, the College of the Augustales was an organization offering training, services and support to its members, freed slaves who were making their way as full citizens. Although they were not allowed to hold traditional political offices or become Roman priests, the members were able through this association to contribute to and impact the society and culture of the city. The hall is located in the center of College building.
The House of Neptune and Amphitrite – Located behind a wine shop with a wooden balcony and a rack for the storage of amphorae, the dining room of the residence is decorated with stunning mosaics including the famous image of Neptune and the nymph Amphitrite.
Good to Know
- Getting there – It’s a 20-minute train ride on the Circumvesuviano line from the Naples Garibaldi central station to Ercolano Scavi stop,then a 15-minute walk down to the bottom of Via IV Novembre to the archway entrance to the Herculaneum Archeological Site. Trains run every 30 minutes from 6:00 am to 9:30 pm.
- Visiting – In theory, a map of the site and an information pamphlet should be available at the ticket desk. However, there were no pamphlets when I visited and maps were only handed out with the audio guide, which could be rented for €6.50 in addition to the €11 entrance fee, and came with the requirement to leave an ID at the desk as guarantee until return of the device. This extra cost and hassle may be avoided by downloading the map and the pamphlet free of charge from the official site prior to the visit.
- UNESCO designation – The archeological sites of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the nearby villa of Torre Annunziata were collectively declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.