“At every ticket window customers were gesticulating wildly. They didn’t seem to be so much buying tickets as pouring out their troubles to the… weary looking men seated behind each window. It is amazing how much emotion the Italians invest in even the simplest transaction” – Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
The Circumvesuviana is an electrified narrow-gauge railway that runs from Naples to Sorrento and we enjoyed a cramped but scenic journey as the line passed through many tunnels and over several bridges. I first used it in 2004 and from memory it was clean and efficient but now it is gloriously chaotic, battle scarred and overcrowded with danger seeping out of every corner.
After half an hour we arrived at the station of Ercolani Scavi, which is barely half a mile away from the entrance to the excavations.
You have to hand it to the Romans, they thought of everything, even down to building this great city so close to a convenient railway line. Compare this to the French, for example, Calais station, if you have ever been there, is miles out away from the town!
For those short of time, Herculaneum is a good alternative visitor site to the more famous Pompeii. After the eruption the town was buried under approximately twenty metres of lava, mud and ash and it lay hidden and almost intact until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709 who dropped into an underground Roman Theatre. After a bit of inevitable plundering the excavation process began soon after but is still incomplete and today the untidy Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of old Herculaneum which prevents its complete excavation because you can’t just knock down a living town just to get to Ancient Rome.
Actually the excavation has now been indefinitely suspended 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 good preservation but once excavations began exposure to the elements began the rapid process of deterioration. This was not helped by previous methods of archaeology used earlier in the town’s excavation, sometimes rather crude which generally prioritised recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the safeguarding of the infrastructure.
Tourism, vandalism as well as inappropriate excavation methods has damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage coming from modern Ercolano has undermined many of the foundations of the structures. Consequently the archeologists have decided that what remains buried is best left buried until it can be excavated safely.
So long as Vesuvius doesn’t erupt again these archeological endeavours can wait. No one knows absolutely for sure but it is estimated that visitors can only see only 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.
I had been to Herculaneum once before in 2004 with my son, Jonathan, this is him at an ancient fast food restaurant…
I tried to recapture the cool pose fourteen years later…
… and failed miserably on account of not having a hat.
From the entrance we had to descend into what resembles a deep quarry through the twenty metres or so 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.
Pompeii was destroyed and the citizens were killed by fumes and ash that were carried by the wind in a south-easterly direction from the volcano 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 rate of sixty miles an hour. No chance to outrun it, a Roman chariot could only achieve speeds of half that and only over a short distance. When the flow reached the city it buried the citizens who had fled to boat houses and were trying to escape to open sea and the intense heat killed them in an instant.
This is the scientific bit. 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 immediately upon impact. 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.
This process of 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 and they inevitably collapsed but this didn’t happen at Herculaneum. Good for us visitors two thousand years later but not so good for those living there at the time.
The excavation site is much smaller than Pompeii but because of the state of preservation of the buildings I found it 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.
Whereas Pompeii takes a full day to explore, Herculanem takes just a couple of hours so after we had walked the ancient streets we left and ran the gauntlet of the restaurants and bars with pushy waiters back to the railway station and a return to Naples.
Herculaneum also reveals that things don’t really change so much, this is a sign on a wall setting out prices two thousand years ago…
… and this is a modern day fast food shop in the city of Naples…