Herculaneum – Pompei, Calabria, Italy

After a late finish last night in Naples, we had a slower start this Sunday morning. It was another very rainy night, but by 11am there was a break in the clouds and we ventured out to Herculaneum. A short train journey from the station next door. Herculaneum lies halfway to Naples and more directly in the path of Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 BC, in the modern day town of Erocolano.

Although less well known than Pompeii, it was in fact the first Vesuvian city rediscovered in 1709, reputedly during the drilling for a well. Herculaneum was a wealthy seaside town popular with the Roman elite. It was buried in more of a mud like substance than the ash at Pompeii and that has preserved more of the organic material. It is amazing to see roof beams and even doors and staircases preserved.

Amazing depth of the excavations at Herculaneum

Herculaneum was buried in 20m of “pyroclastic surge”, though it seems that it was likely temperatures of 250 degrees C which accompanied this which killed the majority of victims. This is very visually apparent in Herculaneum when you arrive, firstly that you descend a long tunnel to reach the site and the retaining walls of the adjacent land tower above you. The second is when you enter through the entrance to the town which would have been coastal at that time, there are a number of arched brick built stone boat houses which still house 300 skeletons of women and children who it is believed went there to shelter and perished.

Skeletons remain where they fell in the old boat houses

The rest of the town is somewhat smaller than Pompeii, housing an estimated 5,000 residents, versus 11,000 in Pompeii. it also has much less of the elaborate civic infrastructure that Pompeii had such as theatres etc. It is regarded as being much more intact than Pompeii though as the retention of the organic materials such as roof beams means that the first floor of many building has been maintained whereas they collapsed in Pompeii when the wood rotted.

Part of a staircase preserved at Herculaneum

We had tried to get a guide for the tour, but options seemed to be very limited on a Sunday. We also had a couple of last van jobs to get back to now that the rain had stopped. So, we self guided ourselves using the little audio guide booklet as there is limited signage.

There was the usual mix of shops and villas, with a large percentage of large villas as reflected by its resort status. Although there was more first floors intact, we both felt a little less wowed by Herculaneum than Pompeii. Perhaps if we had visited Herculaneum first it would have been different but we were so overwhelmed by Pompeii, that today could not possibly compete.

There was still some impressively preserved elements and it was good to see some of the statues etc left in situ rather than removed to a museum. I think the thing that will stay with me though is the impression of just how deep Herculaneum was buried and how far they had to dig to reveal what they have.

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