Tag Archives: Herculaneum

On This Day – The Roman City of Herculaneum

While the current travel restrictions are in place I have no new stories to post so what I thought that I would do is to go through my picture archives and see where I was on this day at any time in the last few travelling years.

On 21st April 2018 I was in Naples and took a train ride out to the archaeological site of Herculaneum.

Click on an image to scroll through the Gallery…

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Naples, The Roman City of Herculaneum (remastered)

Herculaneum 5

“You could hear the wails of women, the cries of children, the shouts of men… many raised there arms to the gods, others declared that the gods were no longer and this was their last night on earth”, Pliny the Younger in a letter to Tacitus

These are some of the pictures that I captured when visiting Herculaneum.  I have edited them a little and given them some colour because although I am no expert on these matters and I am mindful that I am doing an Arthur Evans here, my guess is that the walls and the mosaics were much more bright and vibrant two thousand years ago…

Herculaneum 4Herculaneum 3Herculaneum 2Herculaneum 1

Naples, The Roman City of Herculaneum

Herculaneum

“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.

Herculaneum

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…

Herculaneum 7

I tried to recapture the cool pose fourteen years later…

Herculaneum 6

… 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.

Herculaneum 9

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…

Herculaneum 8

… and this is a modern day fast food shop in the city of Naples…

Italy Chip Shop

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Related Articles:

Spartacus the Gladiator

Rome

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

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Naples, Mount Vesuvius

From  literally anywhere in Naples Vesuvius stands threateningly close by, like a loaded gun pointed at the heart of the city…

Naples and Vesuvius

Even eggheads find it difficult to be absolutely precise about this but scientists think that Vesuvius formed about twenty-five thousand years ago and today the volcano is rated as one of the most dangerous in the world – not because of its size but because of the proximity of millions of people living close by and if it was to go off again with a similar eruption to the one that destroyed Pompeii in 79 A.D. then it is estimated that it could displace up to three million people who live in and around the city of Naples.

The volcano has a major eruption cycle of about two thousand years so the next eruption is dangerously imminent.

I visited the top of the Volcano in 1976.

Read the Full Story…

Vesuvius still smoking and active

Mount Vesuvius – Living on the edge of Disaster

Mount Vesuvius…

“…when the sun burst through the morning mists and fired this tinted magnificence, it topped imperial Vesuvius like a jeweled crown!” –  Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

Planet Earth is just like a human being – when it becomes angry it gets to shout its mouth off!

On the next day we were back on the road with a half day trip to nearby Mount Vesuvius which is an active stratovolcano situated to the east of Naples.  I am being deliberately specific here because what that means technically and geologically is that it is a tall, conical shaped volcano composed of many layers of hardened lava and volcanic ash laid down over the centuries by all of the many previous eruptions.

Read the Full Story…

Or, if you don’t like Vesuvius here are some other Volcano Visits:

Yellowstone Super Volcano

Fire Mountain, Timanfaya on Lanzarote

Italy, World Heritage Sites

Italy Postcard

Following the visit to Puglia in Southern Italy I thought it was probably time to review my performance in visiting the Country’s World Heritage Sites.

The World Heritage list has been around for over forty years as a consequence of events in 1954 when the government of Egypt announced that it was to build the Aswan Dam, a project that proposed to flood a valley containing priceless treasures of ancient civilizations.  Despite opposition from Egypt and neighbouring Sudan, UNESCO launched a worldwide safeguarding campaign, over fifty countries contributed and the Abu Simbel and Philae temples were taken apart, moved to a higher location, and put back together piece by piece.  At last the World was collectively protecting its treasures.

Ostuni White City Puglia Italy

Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most Word Heritage Sites, it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites.  I have visited half of the sites in Spain but when I reviewed the Italy list I was disappointed to find that I have been to less than a quarter and in this whole fortnight in Puglia I had added only one – the Trulli houses of Alberobello.  I was genuinely surprised to find that Lecce, the Florence of the south was missing from the list and to find it marooned on the tentative list where it has been languishing since June 2006.

Venice The Gondoliers Gilbert and Sullivan

In terms of cities on the list I have been to Rome several times but my first visit in 1976 was four years before it became the first Italian site to be added to the list.  As for other cities on the list I have been to Naples, also in 1976, Florence, Pisa and Siena in 2006, Verona and Padova in 2012 and Venice in 2002, 2003, 2005 and most recently in 2012 because you can never go to Venice too many times.

Which brings me to the final two sites that I have visited, both of them for the first time in 1976 before they were even admitted to the list and which was in actual fact was  before there was any sort of list at all! WOW, I feel suddenly old.

The first of these is the Amalfi coastline and its famous death defying drive described so accurately by John Steinbeck: “Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road, high, high above the blue sea, that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side.”    

The second is a joint listing for the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, two towns destroyed by the eruption in 79 A.D. of the volcano Mount Vesuvius which is surprisingly not included on the list even though Mount Etna in Sicily is.

Well, eleven out of forty-nine is not a good score so it means one of two things are needed to correct this rather poor performance, either I have to spend more time in Italy in the future or UNESCO needs to hurry up and include some of the places that I have already been.  They could start with Lecce and Lucca, both on the tentative list, and also Palermo that once applied but after rejection subsequently withdrew its nomination.

96 Rome

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.

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Related Articles:

Spartacus the Gladiator

Rome

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

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A Life in Ruins – Pompeii, Victim of Vesuvius

76 Pompeii

“Pompeii is no longer a buried city. It is a city of hundreds and hundreds of roofless houses, and a tangled maze of streets where one could easily get lost, without a guide, and have to sleep in some ghostly palace that had known no living tenant since that awful November night of eighteen centuries ago.”  Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad

The next day we were back on the road, this time with a trip to the ancient city of Pompeii  so after breakfast and picking up our lovingly prepared packed lunches in their brown paper bags we waited for the coach to arrive to drive us there.

The site of Pompeii is a ruined and part buried Roman city near Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the commune of Pompeii.  It is part of a larger Vesuvius National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO twenty years after our visit in 1997.  It is the most popular and most visited tourist attraction in Italy with two and a half million visitors a year and I have now been lucky enough to visit the famous excavation twice.  The first time was with dad on this visit to Italy and the second time was nearly thirty years later with my son Jonathan in 2004.

It was only a shortish drive to the historical site and we arrived in the late morning and after going through the entrance gates waited just inside by the souvenir shops to be joined by our guide for the day.  It was a warm day already and when she arrived she was under the shade of an umbrella, which she subsequently used as a means of group identification and we set off into the ruined city.

At the time of the eruption the city is estimated to have had approximately twenty thousand inhabitants but Pompeii, along with nearby Herculaneum, was completely buried and destroyed, during a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two days beginning on 24th  August 79.  The volcano buried the City under a layer of ash and pumice many metres deep and it was lost for nearly one thousand seven hundred years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748.  Since then, its excavation has provided a detailed insight into the life of a city in an area in which many wealthy Romans had their holiday villas at the height of the Roman Empire.

  Pompeii Vesuvius Italy

At around one o’clock in the afternoon on August 24th, Vesuvius, which had been dormant for centuries, began spewing ash and volcanic stone thousands of meters into the sky.  When it reached the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the top of the cloud flattened leading the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, who was observing from a safe distance across the Bay of Naples to describe it as resembling a stone pine tree.

For people in Pompeii, who had no idea what was about to happen, the bad news was that the prevailing winds were blowing towards the south-east which caused the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city and the area surrounding it and the residents were covered in up to twelve different layers of ash, pumice and soil.

According to Pliny the volcano burst open with an ear splitting crack and then smoke, mud, flames and burning stones spewed from the summit of the mountain, sending a rain of ash and rock through the surrounding countryside.  The mud seeped down the sides of Vesuvius, swallowing nearby farms, orchards and villas and basically anything else unfortunate enough to be in the way.  Adding to the destruction were poisonous vapours that accompanied the falling debris and it was these fumes that first caused deliriousness in their victims, and then suffocated them.

Pompeii victims plaster casts of the dead

There is no doubt that Pompeii is a fabulous place to visit with many marvellous houses and buildings and so big that it is impossible to do it all in one day and it is an interesting fact that today visitors can actually only see one third of the site that was open for viewing in 1976.

We saw the Roman Forum and the administrative buildings, the public baths, the brothels, the shopping centres and the outdoor theatres.  Most of the priceless exhibits have been removed of course to the museum in Naples but there were some copies of the most famous and there are still wall frescoes and paintings to admire.  In 1860 an archaeologist called Fontana found some of the famous erotic frescoes and, due to the strict modesty prevalent during his time, quickly reburied them in an early attempt at archaeological censorship in case anyone should be offended.

Even then there were some rooms that women visitors were not allowed to enter just in case the paintings caused offence but the men were allowed to go in and once inside the guide explained in more detail that this was actually because the impressively large penis on one particular statue had been broken off so many times by excitable female visitors that they had had to be prohibited from entering this building. I don’t know whether that was true or not!

“It was a quaint and curious pastime, wandering through this old silent city of the dead–lounging through utterly deserted streets where thousands and thousands of human beings once bought and sold, and walked and rode, and made the place resound with the noise and confusion of traffic and pleasure.”Mark Twain

For the first time ever in a foreign country this was a truly excellent experience and simply one of the best places possible to visit.  I had chosen Italy for the holiday because I had studied Italian history at University, written my thesis on the nineteenth century Piedmontese Prime Minister Massimo d’Azeglio and had taught myself to read Italian to study his autobiographical notes.  I had acquired a passion for the place and now at last I was here and Pompeii was just absolutely wonderful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ancient Greece and Rome

Rome

Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

Segesta, Sicily

Segóbriga

Split

Split peoples square

Athens

Herculaneum

Pompeii

Palace of Knossos

 The Colossus of Rhodes

Sorrento, Herculaneum

Herculaneum Roman City

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.

Read the full story…