Blogging from A to Z: H is for Herculaneum

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The first view of Herculaneum, as you approach the archaeological site, is from above. The remains of the forum are on the right-hand side of the photo.

Pompeii wasn’t the only city destroyed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 CE (there are arguments as to whether it happened in August or October, but we definitely know the year). Herculaneum was a wealthy seaside resort, some three miles northwest of Pompeii.

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Carbonized wooden screen with pocket doors, perfectly preserved. My mom is on the left as our archaeological guide, Daniela, describes the house and screen.

The initial phases of the eruption, with tuffa and ash, didn’t affect Herculaneum very much, if at all. Instead, it was buried by six later pyroclastic flows of hot ash and poisonous gas. The result is that many of the buildings and furnishings were preserved in their entirety, albeit sometimes in a carbonized state.

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Replicas of skeletal remains found in the boat houses, identical to the originals. Original remains were removed for testing and analysis.

Many of the people tried to flee the city and took refuge in dockside “boat houses” (for lack of a better way to describe them), as ships — including 12 naval vessels under the command of Pliny the Elder — were trying to come to their rescue. Those people perished almost instantly due to the heated gases, which were estimated at 250 degrees C. (480 degrees F.).

Herculaneum was eventually buried under some 20 meters of volcanic ash and mud — and pretty much forgotten. It was not until 1709, when a well was being dug, that Herculaneum was rediscovered; the well-digger ran into a statue, which turned out to be in what had been Herculaneum’s theatre. Archaeological excavation has been going on at the site every since. One of the most important finds was in the Villa of the Papyri (not open to the public at this time); there were nearly 1,000 scrolls in the owner’s library. Work to open these carbonized scrolls, or to read them via mechanical means, is ongoing. A 1st C. BCE bronze bust of Scipio Africanus, now in the Naples Archaeological Museum, was found at the same site.

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Neighbor disputes are nothing new.

One of the most entertaining bits of the site, for me, was a sign placed on one of the property lines. The neighbors were having a dispute and wanted to make very clear indeed who lived on each side of that line. Each side of the sign gives the owner’s name, and states that the house is private property.

(All photos by the author.)

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