In 79 AD, another town lay in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius: Herculaneum. As Vesuvius continued to erupt, a volcanic pyroclastic flow (a fast-moving 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) approached Herculaneum and eventually buried it in 50-60 feet of volcanic ash. Unlike Pompeii, the pyroclastic flow preserved the wood and other organic objects, such as such as roofs, beds, doors, food and human remains.
The ruins of Herculaneum were discovered in 1711, when a well was being dug by a landowner who resided in the modern town built over the city. From 1711 to 1716, the site was excavated with statues, columns and pieces of carved marble being uncovered. After this initial excavation, 16 years lapsed where excavation completely cease. This cause for this lapse was twofold: a solid mass of pyroclastic ash had encased the town and the new city, Resina, lay above the buried ancient town. Many of Resina’s residents protested against their property being destroyed for the purpose of excavating the ruins.
In 1738 excavation continued at the request of Charles Bourbon, the King of Naples. At this time, Rocco Gioacchino de Alcubierre became director of the excavation of Herculaneum. He and his assistant, Carlo Weber, removed many items from the site and took them to the Royal Palace at Portici; these items would, in fact, become the cornerstone for the creation of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. In 1780, this excavation period ceased due to increased interest in the excavation of Pompeii.
Excavation of Herculaneum resumed in 1828. Instead of digging tunnels and shafts, open digging, a more methodical method of excavation, was undertaken. This process, although better than the tunnel method, was also hindered by the solidified molten rock and mud covering many of Herculaneum’s buildings; this caused damage and destruction of some the structures that were uncovered during this period. The start of World War II caused the excavation to cease again.
In 1950 Karl Weber, a Swiss architect, took over planning of the excavation of the city which applied an even more disciplined approach to excavating it. In 1975 excavation of Herculaneum resumed. To this day, only a small portion of the town has been uncovered due in large to the continued existence of a modern town over the ruins.
A Rich Past
Once a roaring ancient Roman town Herculaneum was wealthier than Pompeii. In its heyday, Herculaneum was at the water’s edge. The wealth of the town residents were put on display via: the copious amount of homes that employed lavish color marble cladding as part of their design; walls with fresco’s from Greek mythology; the introduction of two-story buildings; extremely detailed and life like mosaics; and the Villa of Papyri, which was a seafront retreat.
Due to Herculaneum’s wealth and access to water, it was believed that once the inhabitants saw the beginnings of Vesuvius’ eruption, they evacuated the town by sea. Evidence of this was in the fact that past excavations had failed to locate any human remains. However in the 1980s, skeletal human remains were found in the boat chambers at Herculaneum in the 1980s.
Still, most of the city’s residents managed to escape and survive the final destruction caused by Vesuvius.
The pyroclastic sediments led to the natural preservation of Herculaneum and protected the ruins from the elements. Despite the history of its excavation, this archaeological marvel is just a beautiful place to visit where you can walk in the footsteps of the people who lived, died and continue to live in the shadow of Vesuvius.
If you are in Naples and you have to choose between Pompeii and Herculaneum, I highly recommend spending time at Herculaneaum. Like the Naples National Archaeological Museum, this site is a must see.