Exploring Herculaneum

Ever since I was a teenager I have wanted to visit Pompeii, it was at the top of my “must see” list of places. I got the chance to go there a couple of years ago when we had a holiday on the Amalfi coast, and that got me even more interested so I longed to visit Herculaneum as well. The central Italy section of our Mediterranean trip was included primarily so that we could visit Herculaneum.

Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was not subjected to 24 hours of raining rock during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD. Situated to the west of the volcano, out of the prevailing wind, the first phase of the eruption resulted in a gentle fall of light ash. This did not significantly damage the town (unlike Pompeii which was subjected to severe damage from rocks and pumice falling from the ash cloud over the city). Most of the inhabitants of Herculaneum evacuated before the devastating second phase. 24 hours into the eruption, the ash column above the crater collapsed down its flanks, sending 6 pyroclastic flows of super-heated ash and gases over the surrounding area, completely burying both Herculaneum and what remained of Pompeii. They both stayed buried and lost for 1,600 years until a marble statue was found deep in the ground when a well was dug in 1734.

Vesuvius, looking all innocent, now with the top of the cone blown off.

The remains of Herculaneum are fascinating as they give much more insight into the way of life than Pompeii. Many of the buildings have an upper story,and in some, the balconies and wooden window surrounds remain intact (the wood has been carbonised by the heat). The walls were richly decorated with paintings and fine mosaics. One detail that really appealed to me was the mosaic floors. There were many different styles for the floor mosaics, but you can start to understand the purpose of the rooms by the flooring they had. One mosaic style was a simple white floor with a thin black border around the edge. This seems to be the ancient equivalent of choosing a beige carpet! It was a neutral floor present in the bedrooms and the utilitarian areas. In the reception rooms and entrance hallways the floor mosaics were much more elaborate, or had larger marble designs, to make a bigger impression on visitors. I was thrilled by the fact that we were still allowed to walk on many of these mosaic floors, they are 2000 years old but they can withstand hundreds of visitors a day walking over them! I find that quite incredible.

Only about 25% of the town has been uncovered, the rest remains buried under the modern city. One of the most striking aspects of Herculaneum is seeing the boundary between the ancient world and present day. Being able to see the full 20m vertical extent of the ash deposit really makes the enormity of the devastation apparent. The edge of the ancient town was on the seafront, boat houses are located along the old beach, but the eruption deposited so much material that it moved the land out by 400m, completely changing the coastline.

Walking around someone else’s house which is so well preserved makes you think about that person, how they lived, and what they went through on that horrendous day. Unlike Pompeii, there are no casts of people in twisted, agonised death throws. Many residents had time to evacuate, and those that didn’t gathered in the boat houses, a location that had proved to be safe during the earthquakes that preceded the eruption. But they were not safe from the super-heated ash cloud. Over 300 skeletons were found in there, mostly women and children, huddled together,embracing.

The end, when it came, was quick.

— Gaynor

Ps. There are more images in this video:

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