Yesterday we visited Herculaneum (near Naples), located at the foot of the Vesuvius. Most of what follows is taken from bits and pieces I found on the Internet, in my memory and in the information booklet that you get when you purchase entry tickets to the ruins. In past blog pieces, I forgot to mention that almost certainly the eruption that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum did not occur in August but in November of 79 A.D., according to the previously-mentioned documentary ( Superquark ) that I watched recently on Italian TV. Now, this may not seem like a big deal or the most fascinating bit of news you have ever read, but the documentary presented clues and evidence in such a brilliant manner that I was reminded of CSI Crime Scene. It reported that ancient transcriptions of the eruption date were simply wrong, and that an error probably made by one transcriber was simply copied over and over again. This new theory is based on recent archaeological finds in Pompeii. I remember three of the main pieces of evidence presented.
1. Sealed clay wine containers with traces of the wine that had been produced that year were found in Pompeii. This would prove beyond doubt that the grape harvest had already taken place, i.e., BEFORE the eruption. There is no way that the grape harvest of 79 A.D. could have taken place before the month of August. 2. The inhabitants of Herculaneum were found clad in (bits of) heavier clothing than what would be expected in the hot month of August. 3. But perhaps the most important find was a coin that couldn’t possibly have been in the possession of one of the unfortunate city dwellers in the month of August, 79 A.D. I don’t remember the exact date on the coin, but that was quite a convincing piece of evidence. Anyway, I thought these were remarkable fragments of the Vesuvius eruption story. Ok, enough about erroneous dates. 😉
Some of the luxury homes of Herculaneum overlooked the Bay of Naples in ancient times. Now the sea is much farther than it would have been back then. If you look closely at the panoramic photo (top of post), you can make out the sea in the background.
During the eruption of 79 A.D., Herculaneum was covered by about 20 meters (about 65 feet) of pyroclastic material â‚¬”water, ash and debris â‚¬”that solidified into volcanic tuff, forming a sort of airtight seal around the city. Herculaneum was thus almost perfectly preserved for centuries until it was discovered by accident in 1702 by workers digging a well in an orchard. Until then, Herculaneum had simply disappeared off the face of the Earth. The eruption, you see, had added an entire strip of land to the surrounding coastline, so the precise location of the ancient city had been lost. Actually, I think that it was very unfortunate that Herculaneum didn’t remain hidden until recent times. Had the city been excavated with modern techniques, in fact, more of it would certainly have been preserved. In the 18th century and subsequent excavations, entire buildings were ransacked and damaged, frescoes were torn from walls, perishable goods and other organic matter were left to deteriorate etc. Concerning organic matter: unlike Pompeii, excavations in Herculaneum have unearthed plants, fabrics, furniture, and even parts of the ancient wooden house structures. This was made possible because the first phase of the eruption didn’t hit Herculaneum as forcefully as other sites (Pompeii and Stabiae, e.g.). And in fact Herculaneum still has several two-story buildings (see photo), unlike Pompeii, which suffered more structural damage (roofs caving in etc.).
When you compare the two cities, the first noticeable difference is size. Pompeii is huge (66 hectares, of which 15 still remain underground) whereas Herculaneum is much smaller: 4.5 hectares are visible, and as many as 20 may still be hidden under the modern city, including important public buildings, probably. Another big difference is that Pompeii is more removed from its modern counterpart and gives you much more of a feel for how ancient Roman city life used to be. Modern Ercolano, as can be seen in the photos I took yesterday, is instead precariously perched right above the ruins (see photo below). That reminds me: the first time I visited Herculaneum, I found the contrast between ancient and modern mesmerizing, but this time it really bothered me. I didn’t want to see modern laundry hanging out to dry practically over my head. I wanted to be completely immersed in my vision of how city life used to be two thousand years ago. But then I would look down and see that I was walking on ancient mosaic floors…
The main problem of Herculaneum today is preservation and restoration. Apart from destructive and stupid vandalism (we saw and were outraged by the damage that had been done to walls and frescoes by imbeciles writing their names etc.), quite a lot of water damage has been done to the ruins by the modern city. Until these extremely difficult problems can be solved, it is best that the rest of ancient Herculaneum remain buried.