by Iain Dickson, 'Melvadius Macrinus Cugerni'
With Vesuvius brooding on the horizon any visit to the Bay of Naples area should include a visit to Herculaneum. It is unjustly less famous than its bigger brother Pompeii as the state of preservation of the buildings are generally much superior. It was lost to sight during the same series of eruptions that destroyed Pompeii but was possibly destroyed by a pyroclastic flow* as much of the timber has survived in a charred condition giving a much better idea of what a Roman town may have looked like.
* [A pyroclastic flow is described by the US Geological Survey as ‘A ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano as fast as 100 km/hour or more. The temperature within a pyroclastic flow may be greater than 500° C, sufficient to burn and carbonize wood. Once deposited, the ash, pumice, and rock fragments may deform (flatten) and weld together because of the intense heat and the weight of the overlying material’.]
Herculaneum was originally discovered when a well was being dug in the early 18th Century at a depth of 50 – 60 feet below the modern surface. Initially a series of ‘robber’ shafts and tunnels were dug to strip the site of any saleable valuables. However, between 1749 to 1765 Herculaneum was explored on a more scientific basis for the Bourbon Kings of Naples and the Two Sicilies, initially under the supervision of Rocco Gioacchino Alcubierre and then his assistant Carlo Weber. A basic plan of the town was mapped out and much of the portable remains removed but eventually these tunnels collapsed and were closed down. The modern towns of Resina and Portici grew up over the site and knowledge of where the entrances to the tunnels were was lost to the scientific community.
In the 20th Century, archaeological excavations re-commenced on a more modern and scientific basis fully uncovering a small section of the town but it was found that the earlier tunnelling had damaged the structure of much of the surviving buildings. The site is also suffering from exposure to the elements and the periodic earth tremors, so there is a constant battle to try and preserve the remains. Recent archaeological work at the site has rediscovered potentially one of the greatest treasure houses of contemporary Roman knowledge. The Villa of the Papyri was initially thought to contain unreadable charred scrolls, fused into solid lumps when it was originally excavated in the 18th Century. It was found that using various techniques some of the scrolls could be eased open and at least part of their contents read. A few were opened using an early mechanised method that allowed them to be slowly unrolled but it could take 4 years to do this and the scrolls were still extremely difficult to read when they were opened. Recent research using carefully measured chemical solutions is now enabling more of the 1800 to 2000 excavated scrolls to be opened into separate sheets but it is still a long process. Electronic equipment has recently been used enabling scholars to enhance the remaining script and more fully interpret some of the ancient texts contained on the scrolls. The scrolls opened and read to date appear to have mainly been various philosophical texts written in Greek rather than Latin but it is possible that more scrolls could be excavated in the future which will cover other aspects of Roman life. It has been speculated that there may be other Papyri with Latin texts in a lower unexplored section of the Villa. To my mind the fact that the villa was owned by a relative of Julius Caesar gives rise to several tantalising possibilities. It is entirely plausible that a more complete copy of Caesars ‘Civil War’, which is known to have missing or corrupted sections, or any number of texts that are known about from surviving fragments or other texts but have since been lost to history are just waiting to be rediscovered.
Herculaneum can be visited either by tour coaches, which spend a few hours there or else it can be reached by using the Circumvesuviana railway line to the ‘Ercolano Scavi’ station, from where it is about one mile straight down the hill to Herculaneum itself. One thing to note is that it may be best to buy a guidebook before you go into the excavations unless you wish to join a guided tour as when we lasted visited, a few years ago, there were no guide books available within the site itself. Although I believe that there is now a museum on the site so this information may be out of date.
The main entrance to the site is in the NE corner and the entrance road crosses a bridge over part of the site, it then goes around the eastern and southern sides before entering by a bridge in the SW corner of the site. The area available to visit is a small section of the original town basically covering three roads (Cardo III to V) running from the ancient coastline inland to the North and two of the roads (Decumanus Maximus and Inferior) running in a East/West direction parallel to the old coast.
It is common for various sections of the site to be closed for repairs and my photography is neither perfect nor definitive of all that Herculaneum contains but in the following section I will try to give a flavour of what a visit to it is like.
Herculaneum as seen from the approach road to the East of the excavations. The Decumus Maximus can be seen running towards the hillside on the far side of the site. The theatre was partially excavated with tunnels by the Bourbons but it lies slightly North of the line taken by the Decumus Maximus (beneath the modern houses).
Looking down on the Western side of the Paleastra from the approach road.
Looking down on Herculaneum from the East, with the ‘House of the Gem’ in the foreground. The orange netting in the middle distance on the left of the picture is where a bridge crosses into the site from the site museum and the end of the access road. I believe that the area immediately beyond the bridge is where the Villa of the Papyri is in the process of being excavated, to the West of Herculaneum.
Herculaneum from the South, taken from above the old harbour. In the middle of the picture is the House of the Stags, with one of the access ramps below it leading down to the Sacred Precinct and the harbour. On the right hand side of the Sacred Area is the Suburban Baths. The modern town can be seen above the excavated remains.
View of Herculaneum looking straight up ‘Cardo’ IV to the North. The opening below ‘Cardo IV’ is a tunnel giving access down to the ramp leading to the Sacred Area. The House of the Mosaic Atrium is on the right of the picture.
The Sacred Area of Herculaneum seen from the south access road with the steps leading down to the old harbour and the arched storerooms where approximately 300 bodies of refugees from the eruption were found during the excavations of the harbour area. Fortunately or unfortunately this area remains closed to the general public but scientists have learnt a lot from these bodies. Most of the bodies found appear to be in general good health but several were suffering from advance stages of lead poisoning and amongst them there are apparently two armoured figures. There are hopes that research being carried out on these last two may help with future knowledge about how Roman arms and armour were worn and used in this period.
The Suburban Baths showing the view from the south. This building has in recent years apparently been used for the conservation of the various finds from the site so is normally not open to the public.
The final approach to the site is made over this bridge, although not generally recommended for an acrophobic, I’ve made the trip three times so far and never regretted it. It may now also be possible from this point to see the newly excavated areas to the West where I suspect that the Villa of the Papyri has been rediscovered.
One of the ‘tunnel’ passages leading from the Southern end of each of the Cardo’s down towards the Sacred Area and the old harbour. It is believed that no wagons could or were allowed into these areas so all traffic to and from the harbour was either on foot or possibly using mules to transport goods.
Wall mosaic from the ‘House of Neptune and Amphitrite’. The left hand figure in this mosaic has sometimes also been described as Poseidon but this is one of several good wall mosaics in this building.
Fresco depicting the myth of Hercules in the ‘College of the Augustals’, which was the cult dedicated to the Imperial Household.
A few of the statues and remains of marble furniture found in ‘The House of the Deer’.
In several of the buildings the remains of carbonised timbers can be seen and in many cases the different timbers used in the construction can be picked out.
Here some of the doors have partially survived on the northern side of the Decumanus Maximus. This was the main street of Herculaneum and in this section appears to have also fulfilled the function of a forum with wagons banned from entering it.
In some cases, like here in the ‘House of the Mosaic Atrium’ the carbonised timbers have been enclosed in sheets of rigid plastic to try and protect them.
‘House in Craticum’ so called from its building style (opus craticum) where rubble walls and lime were supported by timber and covered with plaster. The timbers in this building appear to have been replaced almost entirely but the remains of carbonised roof timbers can be seen in the next building.
In several parts of the site differences in construction styles and quality can be seen, in part obvious from the height or completeness of the surviving structures. Other notable features include original iron grills in windows, the narrowness of the streets and indeed the sheer depth of the excavations.
Further details about visiting either Herculaneum or Pompeii can be found at the following link:
Further details on the work carried out on some of the Papyri from the Villa of the Papyri can be found at the attached link to Brigham Young University:
by Iain Dickson, 'Melvadius Macrinus Cugerni'