Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

    entry June 2006      update Oct 2015 , Aug. 2023                   


“…And now high and far into the dawning skies broke the fragrant fire…”


As far as I know, no one has ever written a book or made any movies about the last days of Herculaneum.* The line cited above is from  Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii. It remains one of the most widely read books ever, and there have been at least three films based on it. Bulwer-Lytton pretty much left neighboring Herculaneum alone, which is just as well, since keen-eared readers will note that the cited line is not much better than the author’s most famous line, the immortally bad, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Yet, the remains of some 300 citizens of Herculaneum uncovered during the excavations of the city attest to the same dramatic reality of destruction in 79 a.d. by the same explosive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that doomed Pompeii.

Indeed, Herculaneum remains underknown and undervisited — which are excellent reasons to take a look at it. The town is also underexcavated, but there are projects underway to correct that situation, in so far as it is possible to carry out archaeological digs in the most densely populated area of Europe, precisely the area along the southern slope of the Volcano, where modern Ercolano sits — exactly on top of old Herculaneum.

The current plans are the result of a collaboration between the Packard Humanities Institute of Los Altos California, founded in 1987 “to create tools for basic research in the Humanities and to foster public interest in the history, literature, and music of the past” and the British School of Rome, a  “…centre for research on the archaeology, history, and culture of Italy, and for contemporary art and architecture.” The collaboration has existed since 2001 with the aim, in part, “… to arrest the decay that afflicts all parts of this site. The propping of collapsing structures with scaffolding, the consolidation of crumbling plaster surfaces and disintegrating mosaics …represent the vital first step in ensuring that the delicate ancient remains survive…[and]… to develop a conservation strategy to safeguard the long-term survival of the site and enhance its value to all its users.”

Herculaneum, they say, was founded by Hercules, who was one busy little camper in these parts as he returned from Spain after wrangling the Oxen of Geryon; numerous other bits and pieces along the Campanian coast are connected to him: the town of Torre del Greco, the little island of Rovigliano, etc. etc. Greek historian, Strabo, tells us that the city was originally Oscan, then Etruscan, and then Samnite before being gobbled up by the Romans. In any case, by the time of Augustus, it was a thriving little walled city on a sheer cliff overlooking the sea. Like other places in the vicinity, Herculaneum was badly damaged in a great earthquake of 62 A.D. and was presumably getting back on its feet when real disaster struck a few years later.

The walls of the city enclosed an area of about 20 hectars (about 50 acres). The city was home to about 4,000 persons. Less than one-quarter of the original city has been excavated; the rest lies beneath the modern, densely populated town of Ercolano, and is likely to remain so buried forever. Excavations were begun in the 1730s as part of the general rediscovery of the classical history of the area, which included Pompeii, Oplontis and, farther afield, Paestum. Important work was done in the 20th century by the great Neapolitan archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, the person who finally found the fabled cave of the Sibyl of Cuma. (Hmmm-- “…finally found the fabled cave…” / “…high and far into the dawning skies…” OK, it’s a toss-up.)

HerculaneumCurrent work takes advantage of the fact that the city was buried and, thus, preserved under 50 feet of the original pyroclastic material that covered the town and solidified. As it is scraped away, much more detail is available to us than in Pompeii about, say, the upper floors of the original structures and the building techniques. The original docks of the city with their vaulted warehouses and boat storage facilities on the original beach at the base of the cliff may now be seen, for example. They now sit some 400 yards in from the sea, the result of new land added by the eruption as well as by natural changes in sea level. The few blocks of the excavated city in from the cliff contain other items of extreme interest: the house of the Corinthian atrium, the Taberna of Priapus, the House of the Deers, etc. etc. much of which is in a better state of preservation than found elsewhere in classical archaeology. The streets and a few of the buildings just look empty, but not particularly devastated — as if those living there had just stepped out for a while. Indeed, Shelley’s lines about Pompeii...

"I stood within the City disinterred;
And heard the autumnal leaves like light footfalls
Of spirits passing through the streets...

...have an intimacy about them that one is more likely to sense in Herculaneum.

Afterthought (Feb. 2011): Kind Laura from London informs me that, while there may be no epic film about the last days of Herculaneum, there is indeed an epic poem by Edwin Atherstone (1788–1875). He has become rather obscure but is best remembered for a poem, The Fall of Ninevah. It consisted of 30 books (!) published from 1828 to 1868. That's epic. His poem entitled The Last Days of Herculaneum is a scant 2,000 lines long. The ending is this:

    ...Flames issue, shaking high their bloody flags,
    As for destruction's triumph.
Hill 'gainst hill
mountain to mountain nods. Yawns then
    The ground
a dark terrific gulf:at once
    The city sinks as in a sepulchre;

    Deep down it sinks in that tremendous pit,
    Like ship that goes into the bottomless deep,

    And the huge earthwaves close above, and seal
    Its everlasting tomb.
'Tis gone! where late
    The mighty city stood no trace is left;
    Its costly palaces
its splendid streets,
    Its awful temples
all are gone. Remains
    A dark--hued plain alone, whose rugged face
    The lessening lightnings plough;
o'er which the flood
    Of lava slowly settles in a lake.
agescenturiesshall pass away
    And none shall tell where once that city stood.

note (Feb. 2014): Oops! It turns out that there is at least one film. Friend Jeff Miller has reminded me of a 1962 Italian/French production entitled Anno 79: La Distruzione di Ercolano. It's from 1962,  during the golden age of (1) Spaghetti Westerns and (2) Italian-made "Sword & Sandal" epics about ancient Rome, generally featuring overly-ripped musclemen throwing chariots around. The film was directed by one of the prominent makers of such epics, Gianfranco Parolini, whose other genre films include Samson, The Fury of Hercules and The Ten Gladiators. up^

note (Oct. 2015): There is now an excellent virtual museum in Ercolano near the archaeological site. You can see, live, breathe and feel all this without getting burnt to a crisp. See link, below: Virtual Archaeological Museum.

also see: "Putting on a new Face"  by Jarret A. Lobell,  Archaeology Magazine Nov./Dec-2017.

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added 26 Oct 2019                                 Conserving the paintings in Herculaneum

Pompeii gets most of the ink about new discoveries and new this and new that in excavation and restoration. That's fine, but its oft overlooked twin victim of Vesuvius in 79 AD, Herculaneum, has cause to rejoice. The House of the Bicentenary (image left) has reopened!

The House of the Bicentenary is called that because it was re-discovered in 1938, 200 years after official excavations began at the site under the Bourbon monarchy. Italy's entry into WWII didn't leave too much time for art history and conservation. The post-war boom overlooked a lot of that, as well. Then in 1983, the 600-square-meter (6,400-square-foot) building was closed to the public. It was falling apart.

It was one of the city’s finest private houses, the home  of  Gaius Petronius Stephanus and his wife Calantonia Themis, with well-preserved mosaic floors and frescoes depicting mythological scenes and architectural and animal motifs. These badly faded works of art may now be restored thanks to a "revolutionary new technique." The old technique was well meaning but misguided. The faded paintings and mosaics were covered with wax. Does that work? Well, it preserves, leaving you with a badly faded painting that you can never restore because stripping away the wax strips away so much of the original color that you have done more harm than good

The solution was a "non-organic rigid gel solution" that actually removes the wax without flaking away the paint underneath, leaving a stable paint layer for art restorers to apply vivid colors to and send these works of art, a significant part of the area's cultural heritage, back in time by some 2,000 years! If you go to the Bicentenary House, you can watch eager art restorers going nuts!

photos Andreas Solaro

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                                                                            Don't Forget Herculaneum!
Thanks to Jeff Miller, our roving and raving reporter, for sending me this.

Pompeii, of course, is so famous that Italy is now running train service directly from Rome to the ruins of Pompeii.That's a good idea. They should have something similar for Herculaneum. There are many mysteries and questions about the site, and since it wasn't blasted off the map like Pompeii, but buried and thus protected by now hardened pyroclastic ejecta. Thus, there's a good chance of getting some answers. An article by Guillermo Altare in the Madrid (Spain) newspaper El País makes a very strong case for why one should not overlook this fascinating archaeological site. These are some salient points in the article from El País.

  • There are no human remains. No one knew where the dead were. In Pompeii, dead were found from the start. Only in the1980s did researchers find them. About 300 people had taken refuge in warehouses near the sea but, while waiting for help that never came. They were burned by a surge of gas at 550 degrees Celsius (1022 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • Herculaneum has the largest concentration of skeletons of antiquity that has survived to the present. Their bodies turned to vapor and only their jewelry and metal objects withstood the lethal thermal shock. Most of the victims of Pompeii, on the other hand, from the pyroclastic flow that hit them and were then buried under calcified ash.
  • Herculaneum was the first Roman city in the Gulf of Naples to be found by archaeologists in the 18th century. It is much harder to excavate than those in Pompeii because of the mud turned to stone, and because much of the Roman city of H. is also under modern Ercolano, a bustling suburb of Naples.
  • It is an immense square of about two hectares (5 acres). Twenty-five meters of rock hardened by the centuries have had to be excavated to access the Roman streets, temples, gymnasiums, palestras, houses, and shops. At the same time, this has let materials be preserved, such as wood, practically unique for remains from the ancient world. Today, Herculaneum is, in the words of Francesco Sirano, the director of the site, “an open-air archaeological laboratory,” which can still offer many surprises, such as the corpses on the beach.
  • Herculaneum tells us about the daily life of its citizens, their trade, and establishments. Art, culture and religion are also present with all kinds of examples. The entire life of a Roman city is within the reach of researchers in a couple of hectares thanks to the eruption that made such preservation possible.
  • Herculaneum occupies a discrete background. An important part of the information comes not only from excavations, but from research of what is found using the latest technologies. Here, even human waste is data mine. Waste found in an old septic tank have yielded information about the diet of -- and diseases suffered by -- the 4,000 inhabitants of the city.
  • What has been found is only a tiny part of what may appear. Herculaneum is not only impressive for what it shows, but for what it still hides. Two-thirds of the city remains unexplored. “The most important thing is to discover this precious but limited resource very gradually, taking advantage of the latest technological advances in scientific archaeology."
  • One of the first buildings excavated in Herculaneum was the Villa of the Papyri, one of the most famous sites in the cities hit by Vesuvius, because in it an entire library was found that is still being investigated. Located outside the square of the main site, it was not excavated for years for safety reasons and only part of what it contains is known. 
                        (See also "Papyrii" on this site at this link.)

  • They found a statue of the god Pan copulating with a goat. We are thus reminded of the cultural abyss that separates us from ancient Rome.
  • What may remain to be discovered in Herculaneum is overwhelming. Only a quarter of the city has been excavated, which tells us that there are three times as many homes, shops, public buildings, and villas as we have excavated. Herculaneum still has a lot to say under 25 meters of petrified pyroclastic flow.
My general article on Herculaneum is above this item, at the top of this page.  
See also: Tomb Raiders of Naples  and  Virtual Archaeological Museum

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