Herculaneum

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40°48'21"N
014°20'53"E
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 Italy
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Description

Herculaneum (; Italian: Ercolano) was an ancient town, located in the modern-day comune of Ercolano, Campania, Italy. Herculaneum was buried under volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Like the nearby city of Pompeii, Herculaneum is famous as one of the few ancient cities to be preserved more or less intact as the ash that blanketed the town also protected it against looting and the elements. Although less well known today than Pompeii, it was the first, and for a long time the only, buried Vesuvian city to be found (in 1709), while Pompeii was only revealed from 1748 and identified in 1763. Unlike Pompeii, the mainly pyroclastic material that covered Herculaneum carbonized and preserved more wood in objects such as roofs, beds, and doors, as well as other organic-based materials such as food and papyrus. The traditional story is that the city was rediscovered by chance in 1709, during the digging of a well. Remnants of the city, however, were already found during earlier earthworks. In the first years after its rediscovery, tunnels were dug at the site by treasure hunters, and many artifacts were removed. Regular excavations began in 1738, and have continued ever since, albeit intermittently. Today, only part of the ancient site has been excavated, and attention and funds have shifted to the preservation of the already excavated parts of the city, rather than focusing on uncovering more areas. Although it was smaller than Pompeii with a population of up to 5000, Herculaneum was a wealthier town. It was a popular seaside retreat for the Roman elite, which is reflected in the extraordinary density of grand and luxurious houses with, for example, far more lavish use of coloured marble cladding. Famous buildings of the ancient city include the Villa of the Papyri and the so-called "boat houses", in which the skeletal remains of at least 300 people were found.

History of Herculaneum

Dionysius of Halicarnassus states that the Greek hero Heracles (Hercules in Latin) founded the city. However according to Strabo, the Oscans founded the first settlement and they were followed by Etruscan and then Greek control. The Greeks named the town Heraklion and used it as a trading post because of its proximity to the Gulf of Naples. In the 4th century BC, Herculaneum came under the domination of the Samnites until it became a Roman municipium in 89 BC, when, having participated in the Social War ("War of The Allies" against Rome), it was defeated by Titus Didius, a legate of Sulla. After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, Herculaneum was buried under approximately 20 m (66 ft) of ash. It lay hidden and largely intact until discoveries from wells and tunnels became gradually more widely known, and notably following the Prince d'Elbeuf's explorations in the early 18th century. Excavations continued sporadically up to the present and today many streets and buildings are visible, although over 75% of the town remains buried. Today, the Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie above the site of Herculaneum. Ercolano was called Resina until 1969 when, in honour of the old city, the Italian modernisation of the ancient name was adopted.

Eruption of 79 AD

Based on archaeological excavations and on two letters of Pliny the younger to the Roman historian Tacitus, the course of the eruption can be reconstructed.At around 1:00 pm, Mount Vesuvius began spewing volcanic material thousands of metres into the sky. When it reached a height of 27–33 kilometres (17–21 mi), the top of the column flattened, prompting Pliny to describe it to Tacitus as a stone pine tree. The prevailing winds at the time blew toward the southeast, causing the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city of Pompeii and the surrounding area. Since Herculaneum lay to the west of Vesuvius, it was only mildly affected by the first phase of the eruption. While roofs in Pompeii collapsed under the weight of falling debris, only a few centimetres of ash fell on Herculaneum, causing little damage but nonetheless prompting most inhabitants to flee. At 1:00 am the next day, the eruptive column, which had risen into the stratosphere, collapsed onto Vesuvius and its flanks. The first pyroclastic surge, formed by a mixture of ash and hot gases, flowed down the mountain and through the mostly evacuated town of Herculaneum at 160 km/h (100 mph). A succession of six flows and surges buried the city's buildings to approximately 20 m depth, causing little damage in some areas and preserving structures, objects and victims almost intact. However, in other areas there was significant damage, knocking down walls, tearing away columns and other large objects; a marble statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus near the baths was blown 15 m away and a carbonised skeleton was found lifted 2.5 m above ground level in the garden of the House of the Relief of Telephus.The date of the eruption has been shown to be on or after 17 October. Support for an October/November eruption has long been known in several respects: buried people in the ash were wearing heavier clothing than the light summer clothes typical of August; fresh fruit and vegetables in the shops are typical of October – and conversely the summer fruit typical of August was already being sold in dried, or conserved form. Wine fermenting jars had been sealed, which would have happened around the end of October; coins found in the purse of a woman buried in the ash include one with a 15th imperatorial acclamation among the emperor's titles and could not have been minted before the second week of September.Recent multidisciplinary research on the lethal effects of the pyroclastic surges in the Vesuvius area showed that in the vicinity of Pompeii and Herculaneum, heat was the main cause of the death of people who had previously been thought to have died by ash suffocation. This study shows that exposure to the surges, measuring at least 250 °C (480 °F) even at a distance of 10 kilometres from the vent, was sufficient to cause the instant death of all residents, even if they were sheltered within buildings.

Archaeology

The Prince d'Elbeuf began building a villa at nearby Granatello and to furnish it became interested in local stories of wells revealing ancient statues and works of art. In 1709 he purchased the land of a recent well and proceeded to tunnel out from the bottom of the well, collecting any statues they could find. The well revealed some exceptional statues at the lowest levels which were found to be the site of the theatre. Among the earliest statues recovered were the two superbly sculpted Herculaneum Women now in the Dresden Skulpturensammlung. The excavation was stopped in 1711 for fear of collapse of buildings above. Major excavation was resumed in 1738 under the patronage of Charles III of Spain when he started construction of his nearby palace at Portici. He employed Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre to oversee the intensive new work. The resulting elaborate publication of Le Antichità di Ercolano ("The Antiquities of Herculaneum") had an effect on incipient European Neoclassicism out of all proportion to its limited circulation; in the later 18th century, motifs from Herculaneum began to appear on stylish furnishings, from decorative wall-paintings and tripod tables to perfume burners and teacups. However, excavation ceased after strong criticism in 1762 by Winckelmann of the treasure-hunting methods employed, and once the nearby town of Pompeii was discovered which was significantly easier to excavate because of the thinner layer of debris covering the site (4 m as opposed to Herculaneum's 20 m). In 1828 under the new king Francis I, new excavations were begun in order to expose the remains to the open air and land was purchased, though this was stopped in 1837. Under the Italian government in 1868 further purchases of land were made and excavations proceeded eastwards till 1875.From 1927 until 1942 a new campaign of excavations was begun by Amedeo Maiuri under the Mussolini regime, which exposed about four hectares of the ancient city in the archaeological park that is visible today. Excavation resumed briefly in the town in 1980–81 on the ancient shoreline following which the skeletons in the so-called "boat houses" were found. From 1996–99 the large area to the north-west of the site was excavated and exposed, including part of the Villa of the Papyri, the north-west baths, the House of the Dionysian Reliefs and a large collapsed monument. This area was left in a chaotic state and from 2000–7 further work on conservation of this area was done. Many public and private buildings, including the forum complex, are yet to be excavated.

Site

The classical street layout separates the city into blocks (insulae), defined by the intersection of the east–west (cardi) and north–south (decumani) streets. Hence Insula II – Insula VII run counterclockwise from Insula II. To the east are two additional blocks: Orientalis I (oI) and Orientalis II (oII). To the south of Orientalis I (oI) lies one additional group of buildings known as the "Suburban District" (SD). Individual buildings having their own entrance number. For example, the House of the Deer is labelled (Ins IV, 3). The Forum, temples, theatre, numerous houses and necropolises are still buried in Herculaneum. The town was surrounded by walls from 2 to 3 metres thick, dating to the second century BC, and built mainly with large pebbles, except along the coast, where they were in opus reticulatum. As in Pompeii, the walls lost their defensive function after the Social War and were incorporated into buildings in their vicinity, for example the House of the Inn. A single main drain was found, along cardo III, which collected water from the Forum and from house impluviums, latrines and kitchens that overlooked this street, while other drains emptied directly into the street, except those of the latrines that were equipped with a cess pit. For water supply the city was directly connected to the Serino aqueduct, built in the Augustan age, which brought water to houses through a series of lead pipes under the roads, regulated by valves; previously, wells had been used which found water at a depth of between eight and ten metres. Herculaneum lay just above sea level, but now areas of the ancient city lie as much as 4 metres below sea level due to bradyseism which affects the whole Vesuvius area.

The House of Aristides (Ins II, 1)

The first building in insula II is the House of Aristides. The entrance opens directly onto the atrium, but the remains of the house are not particularly well preserved due to damage caused by previous excavations. The lower floor was probably used for storage.

The House of Argus (Ins II, 2)

The second house in insula II got its name from a fresco of Argus and Io which once adorned a reception room off the large peristyle. The fresco is now lost, but its name lives on. This building must have been one of the finer villas in Herculaneum. The discovery of the house in the late 1820s was notable because it was the first time a second floor had been unearthed in such detail. The excavation revealed a second floor balcony overlooking Cardo III, as well as wooden shelving and cupboards; however, with the passing of time, these elements have been lost.

The House of the Genius (Ins II, 3)

To the north of the House of Argus lies the House of the Genius. It has been only partially excavated but it appears to have been a spacious building. The house derives its name from the statue of a cupid that formed part of a candlestick. In the centre of the peristyle are the remains of a rectangular basin.

The House of the Alcove (Ins IV)

The house is actually two buildings joined together. As a consequence of this it is a mixture of plain and simple rooms combined with some highly decorated ones. The atrium is covered, so lacks the usual impluvium. It retains its original flooring of opus tesselatum and opus sectile. Off the atrium is a biclinium richly decorated with frescoes in the fourth style and a large triclinium which originally had a marble floor. A number of other rooms, one of which is the apsed alcove after which the house was named, can be reached via a hall which gets its light from a small courtyard.

College of the Augustales

Temple of the augustales or priests of the Imperial cult.

Central Thermae

The Central Thermae were bath houses built around the first century AD. Bath houses were very common at that time, especially in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Per common practice, there were two different bath areas, one for men and the other for women. These houses were extremely popular, attracting many visitors daily. This cultural hub was also home to several works of art, which can be found in various areas of the Central Thermae site.

Villa of the Papyri

The most famous of the luxurious villas at Herculaneum is the "Villa of the Papyri." It was once identified as the magnificent seafront retreat for Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar's father-in-law; however, the objects thought to be associated with Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius correspond more closely to a greatly standardized assemblage, and cannot indicate, with certainty, the owner of the villa. The villa stretches down towards the sea in four terraces. Piso, a literate man who patronized poets and philosophers, built a fine library there, the only one to survive intact from antiquity. Between 1752 and 1754 a number of blackened unreadable papyrus scrolls were serendipitously recovered from the Villa of the Papyri by workmen. These scrolls became known as the Herculaneum papyri or scrolls, the majority of which are today stored at the National Library, Naples. The scrolls are badly carbonized, but a large number have been unrolled, with varying degrees of success. Computer-enhanced multi-spectral imaging, in the infra-red range, helps make the ink legible. There is now a real prospect that it will be possible to read the unopened rolls using X-rays. The same techniques could be applied to the rolls waiting to be discovered in the as-yet unexcavated part of the villa, eliminating the need for potentially damaging the rolls by unrolling them. In a later attempt to better read the writings on the scrolls, scientists put the scrolls through a CT scan. From this scan, scientists were able to see the structure of the scrolls' fiber, and see the sand and other dirt that had gotten into the scrolls through the years. Knowing the scrolls' structure made it easier to unroll without breaking. However, the text on the scrolls was still illegible.A team spent a month in summer 2009, making numerous X-ray scans of two of the rolls that are stored at the French National Academy in Paris. They hoped that computer processing would convert the scans into digital images showing the interiors of the rolls and revealing the ancient writing. They had hoped that re-scanning the rolls with more powerful X-ray equipment would reveal the text. The main fear, however, was that the Roman writers might have used carbon-based inks, which would be essentially invisible to the scans. That fear has turned out to be fact. However, subsequent X-rays produced nothing legible.In 2015, a group of researchers headed by Italian physicist Vito Mocella used the method of X-ray phase-contrast tomography, which allowed scientists to increase the contrast between the carbon ink and the carbon-based papyrus so that the words could be read along the outer surface of the papyrus. Scientists were able to read the words written in Greek on the scrolls, marking the beginning of "a revolution for papyrologists". While researchers can identify certain words on the scrolls, there is still a long way to go before the stories on the scrolls are unlocked.

Boathouses and the Shore

In 1980–82 excavations initially turned up more than 55 skeletons on the ancient beach (which was just in front of the town walls) and in the first six so-called boat sheds. Because all of the excavations in the town had revealed only a few skeletons, it was long thought that nearly all of the inhabitants had managed to escape, but this surprising discovery led to a change of view. The last inhabitants waiting for rescue from the sea were apparently killed instantly by the intense heat of the pyroclastic flow, despite being sheltered from direct impact. Study of victims' postures and the effects on their skeletons seemed to indicate that the first surge caused instant death as a result of fulminant shock due to a temperature of about 500 °C (930 °F). The intense heat caused contraction of hands and feet and possibly fracture of bones and teeth.After a period of mismanagement of the finds and deterioration of skeletons further excavations in the 1990s appeared to reveal a total of 296 skeletons huddled close together in 9 of the 12 stone vaults facing the sea and also on the beach, while the town was almost completely evacuated. The "Ring Lady" (see image), named for the rings on her fingers, was discovered in 1982. Eventually 340 bodies were identified in this area. Analysis of the skeletons suggest it was mainly men who died on the beach, while women and children sheltered and died in the boat houses. Research on the skeletons is continuing. Chemical analysis of the remains has led to greater insight into the health and nutrition of the Herculaneum population.Casts of skeletons were also produced, to replace the original bones after taphonomic study, scientific documentation and excavation. In contrast to Pompeii, where casts resembling the body features of the victims were produced by filling the body imprints in the ash deposit with plaster, the shape of corpses at Herculaneum could not be preserved, due to the rapid vaporisation and replacement of the flesh of the victims by the hot ash (ca. 500 °C). A cast of the skeletons unearthed within chamber 10 is on display at the Museum of Anthropology in Naples.Of exceptional interest is the recent analysis of one of the skeletons (no. 26) discovered in 1982 on the beach next to a naval boat (on display in the boat pavilion) which has identified it as that of a military officer (with an elaborate dagger and belt) perhaps involved in a mission to rescue residents.New excavations starting in 2021 will attempt to expose the western side of the ancient beach where more skeletons may be found.

Herculaneum versus Pompeii

Herculaneum is a city that there is now quite a bit of information on. However, for a while the city was eclipsed by the more well-known city of Pompeii. Although the cities are located a mere 13km apart, Pompeii is often more popular in education systems than Herculaneum is. Herculaneum was discovered in 1709, whereas Pompeii wasn’t discovered until 39 years later in 1748. When Pompeii was discovered, a Russian named Karl Bryullov created an oil painting titled The Last Day of Pompeii which later inspired Edward Bulwer-Lytton to write his book The Last Days of Pompeii in 1834; both of which helped boost Pompeii’s popularity. Pompeii’s discovery caused excavations in Herculaneum to stop until the 1920s. This was due to the depth at which both cities were buried. While Herculaneum was buried underneath 20 meters of thick pyroclastic material, Pompeii was only covered with 4 meters of thinner ash, making it a significantly easier site to excavate. Not only was Herculaneum brushed to the side due to Pompeii’s ease of access, but Johann Joachim Winckelmann also had quite a large impact on Herculaneum’s stopped excavations. Winckelmann was a well-respected traveler of the time and was frustrated that he had so much difficulty gaining access to the findings and materials at Herculaneum. He didn’t like the fact that the importance of cultural tourism was being ignored. He also strongly criticized the fact that those pieces excavated that weren’t being taken back to the palace were being destroyed. He ranted on about how important archeological context is and how destroying frescoes so they couldn’t be sold off to foreigners was wrong and could mess with said context. Winckelmann created as much of a fuss as he could in an effort to get the excavations to stop, and it worked. The reason it worked was because the current ruler in place was a young child, Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. Ferdinand had been left to rule from 1759 to 1816 as his father went to go become Charles III of Spain. Due to young Ferdinand’s lack of ability to deal with harsh criticism, he gave into Winckelmann’s demands and slowed the excavations at Herculaneum.At the same time Herculaneum’s excavations were coming to a halt, Pompeii’s excavations were finally starting to pick up. Originally there had been a lack of artifacts due to the site being easier to excavate; this caused the site to have already been touched by looters who took many valuable artifacts. However, there was a major breakthrough when excavations finally struck the theatre of Pompeii. Due to the nature of Pompeii being closer to the surface, policies were adopted to keep the site open to visitors, effectively pleasing Winkelmann. With Pompeii’s easily accessible ‘open-air’ excavations, it became an interesting tourist attraction that many people began to visit. On the other hand, Herculaneum had deep tunnels that had to be traversed by torchlight and was therefore a much less interesting attraction that was easily dismissed from peoples’ minds.

Issues of conservation

The volcanic ash and debris covering Herculaneum, along with the extreme heat, left it in a remarkable state of preservation for over 1600 years. However, 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 centered on recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the survival of all artifacts. In the early 1980s and under the direction of Dr. Sara C. Bisel, preservation of the skeletal remains became a high priority. The carbonised remains of organic materials, when exposed to the air, deteriorated over a matter of days, and destroyed many of the remains until a way of preserving them was formed. Today, tourism and vandalism have 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. Reconstruction efforts have often proved counterproductive. However, in modern times conservation efforts have been more successful. Today excavations have been temporarily discontinued, in order to direct all funding to help save the city. A large number of artifacts from Herculaneum are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Modern conservation

After years of mismanagement, Herculaneum fell into a dire state. However, in 2001, the Packard Humanities Institute began the Herculaneum Conservation Project, a private-public partnership. Initially the project set out to provide financial aid to the local authorities and address the truly critical areas of the site. Over time the goal changed to not only providing financial aid but to providing resources and skilled experts who could better tend to the site. The team went from addressing emergency conservation issues to creating a formula for the long term betterment of the site. Since 2001, the Herculaneum Conservation Project has been involved in multiple pilot conservation projects and has partnered with the British School in Rome to actively teach students how to maintain the site.One of the pilot projects started by the Conservation Project was on the tablinum that had been conserved by Maiuri's team in 1938. Over time water had managed to seep into the wall causing the paint to attach to the previously applied wax and curl away from the wall, stripping it of its color. However, after working in tandem with the Getty Museum, conservators have managed to create a technique where a series of solvents can be used to remove some of the wax and lessen the amount of buildup on the walls so that the paint no longer chips off of the walls.

UNESCO conservation

The city of Herculaneum has been excavated and worked on since the 18th century. Hoverer, Herculaneum didn’t become a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site until 1997. UNESCO was drawn in by Herculaneum’s public architecture. The spacious palaestra, two public baths, the College of the Priests of Augustus, and a standard theatre. Herculaneum also had a seafront display and urban districts that had a very high level of preservation as well as great conservation of upper floors, all due to the pyroclastic material that had so thoroughly covered the city. With all of this impressive preservation that Herculaneum had, the site met UNESCO’s criterion III, IV, and V; allowing the site to become a UNESCO protected site. Herculaneum and the neighboring city of Pompeii, as well as the surrounding villas, are some of the most well-preserved Roman city ruins that have been documented at this time. UNESCO references how Herculaneum is a great example of both Roman urban and suburban settlements. UNESCO also praises how Herculaneum’s urban, architectural, decorative, and its aspects of daily life have helped archeologists piece together a timeline of Roman life from 1st century BC to 1st century AD. The intense rapidness of the destruction of the city along with the thick layers of pyroclastic material that covered the area created nearly perfect conditions for most everything to be preserved. However, this way of preservation has caused issues with the later excavations of the city. There is a constant risk of the uncovered remains starting to decay. The structures being excavated are centuries old and some are beginning to rot away and cave in in certain places. In order to fight to keep Herculaneum a safe and working site, UNESCO has put in several measures of protection for the area. To start off, all excavations in and around the site area must be approved by the World Heritage authorities. UNESCO had Law No. 1089 passed for both Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1939; this law protects all things with artistic and historical interest in the area. In 2004, Legislative Decree No. 42 was passed to extend Law No. 1089 to all areas surrounding Pompeii and Herculaneum. Not only does Herculaneum and its surrounding areas have preservation issues, but Herculaneum itself has many specific developmental restrictions, especially surrounding Mount Vesuvius. These restrictions limit what excavations can be done at the site, and they help to ensure the safety of the ancient city which currently lies mostly under a modern town in the area. Not only does UNESCO have its own laws and restrictions, but they also have many connections with the Vesuvius National Park and with Man and the Biosphere Programme. With the Vesuvius National Park’s ability to provide a broad setting of protection, and MAB Biosphere’s designative abilities to provide the framework for further coordination, they both work together with UNESCO to protect the site to the best of their abilities. UNESCO on its own is also constantly working on reconstruction efforts, specifically those surrounding the structures that are currently already unearthed. While the conservation efforts are still ongoing, Herculaneum has gone from one of the worst preserved UNESCO sites at risk of being put on the endangered list to becoming "a textbook case of successful archeological conservation".

Photos

Documentaries

A 1987 National Geographic special, In the Shadow of Vesuvius, explored the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum, interviewed archaeologists, and examined the events leading up to the eruption of Vesuvius. The 2002 documentary "Herculaneum. An unlucky escape" is based on research of Pier Paolo Petrone, Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo and Mario Pagano. Co-production of DocLab Rome, Discovery Channel USA, France 3 – Taxi Brousse, Spiegel TV, Mediatred, 52'. A 2004 documentary "Pompeii and the 79 AD eruption". TBS Channel Tokyo Broadcasting System, 120'. An hour-long drama produced for the BBC entitled Pompeii: The Last Day portrays several characters (with historically attested names, but fictional life-stories) living in Pompeii, Herculaneum and around the Bay of Naples, and their last hours, including a fuller and his wife, two gladiators, and Pliny the Elder. It also portrays the facts of the eruption. Pompeii Live, Channel 5, 28 June 2006, 8pm, live archaeological dig at Pompeii and Herculaneum Marcellino de Baggis' 2007 documentary "Herculaneum: Diaries of Darkness and Light", Onionskin productions The 2007 documentary "Troja ist überall: Auferstehung am Vesuv", Spiegel TV, 43'29 "Secrets of the Dead: Herculaneum Uncovered" is a PBS show covering the archaeological discoveries at Herculaneum. "Out of the Ashes: Recovering the Lost Library of Herculaneum" is a KBYU-TV documentary that traces the history of the Herculaneum papyri from the time of the eruption, to their discovery in 1752, to modern developments that impact their study. "The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum" is a documentary presented by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of Herculaneum Conservation Project. "Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time" is a 2013 BBC One drama documentary presented by Dr. Margaret Mountford. "Pompeii: The New Revelations" was broadcast on UK TV channel 5 in 2021. "Unearthed: Vesuvius' Secret Victim." Documents the city of Herculaneum and it's people. Reveals that over a thousand of Herculaneum's citizens had survived the eruption and settled in Naples and Cumae.
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