A Life in Ruins – Herculaneum, Italy

Herculaneum Roman City

There are eight hundred and seventy-eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites and what is not altogether surprising is that Italy with forty-three of them is the single country with the most and that of course includes the archaeological area of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

If I had known just how easy it was to use the train to get around then I would have made my own cheaper arrangements to go to Herculaneum but the trip was paid for so along with everyone else we assembled outside the hotel and waited for the coach that was going to take us there.  The coach headed out of Sorrento back in the direction of Naples and went around the base of Vesuvius on the western side towards the modern town of Ercolano.  This was an untidy sort of town on the outskirts of the city and the drop off point seemed less than promising and left us with a long walk to the entrance to the site.

After the eruption the town of Herculaneum was buried under approximately twenty metres of lava, mud and ash and it lay hidden and nearly intact until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709.  From there, the excavation process began but is still incomplete and today and the untidy Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of old Herculaneum which prevents its complete excavation.

Sigmund Freud once compared the human mind to the city of Rome but he could also just as easily have used Herculaneum. He was talking about its intriguing series of layers and just as the human psyche has a build-up of memories,  Herculaneum has a history that goes down and down, deeper and deeper: every modern building is on top of a renaissance one, and under that there are medieval buildings, and then a footprint of ancient Rome itself.

Actually the excavation has now been suspended indefinitely to help preserve the ancient city.  The volcanic water, ash and debris covering Herculaneum, along with the extreme heat, left it in a remarkable state of preservation for over one thousand, six hundred years but once excavations began exposure to the elements began the slow process of deterioration. This was not helped by the methods of archaeology used earlier in the town’s excavation, which generally concentrated on recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the survival of everything.  Tourism, vandalism as well as inappropriate excavation methods has damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage coming from the modern Ercolano has undermined many of the foundations of the buildings. Consequently the archeologists have decided that what remains buried is best left buried until it can be excavated safely.

Roman City of Herculaneum

From the entrance we had to descend into what resembles a deep pit through the twenty metres of tufa and down to the site itself and it became immediately apparent that Herculaneum is most unlike the remains at the site at Pompeii.  The people of Pompeii died from the effects of the poisonous fumes but it was very different in Herculaneum.

Pompeii was destroyed by fumes and ash that was carried by the wind in a south-easterly direction but Herculaneum was on the other side of the mountain to the west.  During the night, the column of volcanic debris which had risen into the stratosphere began falling back down onto Vesuvius.  A pyroclastic flow formed that sent a mixture of gas, ash, and rock that had reached a temperature of five hundred degrees centigrade racing down toward Herculaneum at a hundred kilometres an hour.  When it reached the city it buried the citizens who had fled to boat houses and were trying to escape and the intense heat killed them instantly.

A pyroclastic flow is ‘a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano and the temperature within a flow may be so great that it is sufficient to burn and carbonise wood. Once deposited, because of the intense heat, the ash, pumice, and rock fragments deform and weld together.  Although it killed all of the inhabitants this flow did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up and preserving them perfectly without destroying them altogether.  Filling from the bottom in this way was important because at Pompeii most of the buildings were destroyed by the overhead weight of the ash being deposited on the buildings but this didn’t happen at Herculaneum.

Because this was an organised visit we enjoyed the company of an informative guide who took us around the main buildings and explained them to us and also an audio guide that filled in the details when afterwards we were left to wander about by ourselves through the houses and the streets of the old city.  No one knows for sure but visitors can only see about a fifth of the city which led me to speculate on what great treasures there must be waiting to be discovered in what remains perfectly preserved underneath the foundations of the modern town directly above.

Although the excavation site is much smaller than Pompeii, because of the state of preservation of the buildings I found Herculaneum to be more interesting.  The buildings are intact and the frescoes and the wall paintings are much more vivid and it is possible to visit the houses of important people (including Julius Ceaser’s father-in-law) and the shopping areas and public buildings and the boat houses where most of the inhabitants died as they tried to make their impossible escape from the approaching boiling lava flow.


Related Articles:

Spartacus the Gladiator


The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles


10 responses to “A Life in Ruins – Herculaneum, Italy

  1. that sounds like one great visit..it would be fun to explore the train transport system to just get on and see where it takes you


  2. I had only known about Pompei until reading this post – thanks much for the history. Next time I am in Italy this would be an interesting side trip!


  3. When were you there, Andrew, and when was excavation suspended? We were there 12/13 years ago and I very much liked the site but we don’t have photos (think you needed a permit), so there’s a lot I don’t remember clearly. I think excavation stopped fairly soon after.


    • I think excavation stopped in the 1980s/90s because of the damage that was being done by exposing the site which had been preserved perfectly by the ash because there was no exposure to air. Also because of the physical limitations of excavating underneath a modern urban city. I was there in 2004 so it won’t have changed much since we were both there!


  4. Interesting to read about – I visited Pompeii earlier this year but didn’t have chance to make it to Herculaneum. Gives me a good excuse for a repeat visit though as I loved the area.


  5. Pingback: A Glamorous Past in Umbria, A Fall Visit to Milan and a Little Known Archeological Site « Italy Hotline Custom and Gourmet Tours Blog

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