The eruption of Vesuvius
Favorite thing: Before you start to explore the ruins here, pause for a while to remember what was once here and how it was destroyed. A compact and wealthy seaside town where Romans holidayed raised to the ground in a matter of hours.
Around 1.00PM on 24th August in 79 AD Vesuvius erupted, Pompeii was downwind from the volcano and was quickly buried under a rain of pumice and ash. Herculaneum was upwind and escaped this first onslaught. However it too was destroyed, more than twelve hours later, when the blast cloud collapsed, and a swirl of searing ash, rock, pumice and volcanic gas, 500 degrees centigrade, began to flow along the south side of the volcano at 70 kms per hour. The debris reached the city within five minutes. Everything in its path was instantly destroyed and the entire city was buried under 65 feet of ash and slag within hours. Many residents had already fled when the eruption had first started, but there were others who’d merely taken shelter under the arches of the boat houses on the beach, and these were instantly killed by the searing heat. During the night and at dawn the next day, there was a series of earthquakes and another five burning clouds were expelled from the volcano. The deposits form these buried the city under a blanket 23 metres thick. This has preserved the buildings in a way unseen at Pompeii, with wooden and organic materials like foods, furniture, papyri, cloth and skeletons all conserved to some degree.
Fondest memory: The Roman author, Pliny the Younger, witnessed the eruption and wrote a description of it which I found on a website and copy here:
A black and terrible cloud, rent by snaking bursts of fire, gaped open in huge flashes of flames; it was like lightning, but far more extensive... Soon afterwards, the cloud lowered towards the earth and covered the sea ...
Ashes were already falling, but not yet thickly... When night fell, not one such as when there is no moon or the sky is cloudy, but a night like being in a closed place with the lights out. One could hear the wailing of women, the crying of children, the shouting of men; they called each other, some their parents, others their children, still others their mates, trying to recognize each other by their voices. Some lamented their own fate, others the fate of their loved ones. There were even those who out of their fear of death prayed for death...
It lightened a little; it seemed to us not daylight but a sign of approaching fire. But the fire stopped some distance away; darkness came on again, again ashes, thick and heavy. We got up repeatedly to shake these off; otherwise we would have been buried and crushed by the weight... At last that fog thinned and dissipated in a kind of smoke or mist; soon there was real daylight; the sun even shone, though wanly, as when there is an eclipse. Our still trembling eyes found everything changed, buried by a deep blanket of ashes as if it had snowed... Fear prevailed, since the earthquake tremors went on, and many, out of their senses, were mocking their own woes and others’ by awful predictions. But we, even though we had escaped some perils and expected others, we did not think even of going away until we should have news of my uncle…
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Get your free plan and booklet
Favorite thing: Admission when we went in November 2007 was €11 per person for an adult, or €20 for a combined ticket for Herculaneum and Pompeii which is valid for three days. Visits are free of charge for EU citizens under 18 or over 65 years old, and half price for EU citizens aged 18-24 and EU permanent school teachers.
Opening times are as follows:
Winter season (November – March), 8.30 AM to 5.00 PM, with the last admission at 3.30 PM
Summer season (April – October), 8.30 AM to 7.30 PM, last admission 6.00 PM
Herculaneum is closed on 1st January, 1st May and 25th December
Now, this is the tip I wish I’d had before I went:
The cost of your ticket also includes a detailed plan and small brochure (available in English and I assume other languages) which gives a brief description of each building numbered on the plan. This is really useful as it helps you identify the ones you’d most like to see, locate them and understand a little of what you’re seeing when you get there. However, these useful guides weren’t offered to us as a matter of course, and we didn’t know to ask, so we carried on down the path from the entrance to the start of the archaeological area some 5 or 10 minutes walk away. Here there is a bookshop, where we assumed we could purchase the small plans we’d started to see people carrying, but when we asked we were told that these were only available back at the ticket office. Chris kindly went back up the hill to purchase one, and this was the point at which we discovered they were free. Why the ticket seller hadn’t told us this, or even simply handed them over, I don’t know, but I’m telling the story here so that you don’t make the same mistake. If you’re not offered a free plan and brochure, ask for them!
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Some more background
Favorite thing: The following is from an excellent site I researched before I went (http://sites.google.com/site/ad79eruption/herculaneum-1)
"Herculaneum was re-discovered thanks to the acquisitive nature of an Austrian general, Prince d'Elboeuf. Quite why he was there is one of those strange stories of European politics. Suffice it to say that Austria had gained sovereignty over that part of southern Italy centred on Naples. And so, in 1707, it became Prince d'Elboeuf's not unpleasant duty to take command of the local cavalry unit. He bought an estate and built a villa in nearby Portici.
Over the years relics of Roman times had been occasionally recovered from the surrounding fields. However, in 1709, the digging of a well in the orchard of a neighbouring Franciscan monastery brought to light some exceptional finds. Hearing of this, the prince purchased the land and proceeded to tunnel out from the bottom of the well.
It quickly became clear that he was excavating the site of an ancient marble building. Soon dozens of statues, marble plaques, columns, inscriptions and bronzes were unearthed.
Once the building had been stripped of its finery, interest in the site diminished. It wasn't until 1738 that excavations restarted, this time under Spanish control (don't ask!). The excavations were led by Rocque Joaquín de Alcubierre under the auspices of Charles III of Naples.
The precise location of Herculaneum had been lost in antiquity - the outflow from Vesuvius had completely engulfed the town and reshaped the surrounding coastline.
On December 11, 1738, however, an inscription came to light that identified d'Elboeuf's building. The inscription read Theatrum Herculanensi. They had re-discovered Herculaneum. It was about 7km southwest of Vesuvius, hidden from the world by 17m of rock beneath the town of Resina.
The excavations continued with renewed enthusiasm, causing irreparable damage to the Roman remains. Tunnels were dug randomly; whole building were ransacked; frescoes were cut from walls; locations of artifacts were left unrecorded.
Alcubierre, who was in charge until 1765, was later described as 'knowing as much of antiquities as the moon does of lobsters' by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German antiquarian later to be called the father of archeology.
Fondest memory: However, Winckelmann's charge is not strictly accurate or fair. Alcubierre had the wisdom to make Karl Weber, a Swiss officer, his assistant. In time a semblance of order was imposed, due mainly to the efforts of Weber. He mapped all the tunnels and the buildings they led to, and logged details of the finds. This methodology is clear on his plan of the Villa of the Papyri.
Since the publication of that teams notes in the late 19th century, some archeologists now consider Weber, not Wincklemann, to be the true father of archeology. Although the excavation techniques were crude, many magnificent items were recovered from the excavations under Weber's supervision. Many of these were in much better condition than those uncovered in nearby Pompeii due to the manner of burial. The statuary, for example, both bronze and marble in many cases survived virtually unscathed."
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- Arts and Culture
Favorite thing: I would recommend getting one of these handheld audio-guides because it will clue you in on what you are seeing and offers interesting historical facts of the city. You are given a map that lists all the stations for listening. When you reach a station you press the audio guide and you will hear the narrator explain a particular area. You may need a extra hand carrying the map and audio guide when taking pictures.
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- Museum Visits
Favorite thing: "The Herculaneum Conservation Project was set up by David W. Packard, President of the Packard Humanities Institute (a philanthropic foundation), with the aim of supporting the Italian State, through the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei (the local heritage authority), in preserving this uniquely valuable, but at the same time fragile, archaeological site. The Herculaneum Conservation Project was conceived in the summer of 2000 and formalized by the signing of a memorandum of understanding in 2001 by the Packard Humanities Institute and the Soprintendenza. A sponsorship agreement in 2004 (renewed in 2009) saw the British School at Rome come to the project as a third active partner. The result of this is a collaborative project with the principal objectives of conserving and enhancing the ancient city of Herculaneum.
The overall aim of the Herculaneum Conservation Project is to support the Soprintendenza to safeguard and conserve, to enhance, and to advance the knowledge, understanding and public appreciation of the ancient site of Herculaneum and its artefacts."
Fondest memory: Sites such as Herculaneum are just but one of many in countries like Italy. How much money needs to be spent to preserve such sites beggars the imagination so it's good that some private money is thrown in from time to time because it's impossible to expect European governments to foot the bill when there are so many.
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Diaries of Darkness and Light
Favorite thing: This film tells the story of the excavations at Herculaneum, following the archeologist Amedeo Maiuri, who in little more than 30 years, exposed so much of the Roman city, destroyed along with Pompeii and others by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Today, over two-thirds of the ancient city still lies under the modern city of Ercolano. In order to expand the excavations, large parts of the modern city would have to be knocked down, as Maiuri had started to do a few years before his death. His diaries, together with interviews and unseen footage, lead us in the discovery of the archaeological site and invite us to consider the relationship that humans have with their past along with our desire to discover it, to understand it and to preserve it in time.
Maiuri himself was born in Verla, near Frosinone, about half-way between Naples and Rome. He earned his degree in archaeology at the University of Naples and continued his studies at universities in Rome and Athens. His career began in 1911 when he was appointed to an Italian archaeological mission to Crete. In 1914, he was heading an Italian archaeological team in the Aegean sea. He led this expedition for ten years, doing important work on the historical island of Rhodes, where he also opened a new museum. In 1924 he became director of the wonderful National Archaeological Museum in Naples, the chief of excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and superintendent of antiquities for the Campania region.
Fondest memory: Besides his well-known work in Pompeii and Herculaneum, he still found time to work on the Greek site at Paestum, rediscovered the fabled cave of the Sibyl of Cuma and excavated the Villa Jovis on Capri. Indeed, on Capri, before Maiuri,
"...certain vaulted ruins were believed to be all that remained of the splendid palace which once crowned the height, and that they were all that survived after the Corsair raids in the Middle Ages. However… Maiuri became convinced that such was not the case. Excavation fully justified his doubts, for it was discovered that what had long passed for the foundation of the palace was in reality its top floor and that…[there exist]…the remains of three lower floors built around four massive cisterns which formed the core of the palace structure.."
Unlike the modern sweat-shirt and blue-jeans diggers of newer archaeology, Maiuri was always impeccably dressed, even when sitting in a row-boat in the waters off of Baia above the sunken ruins of Portus Julius, home port of the western Imperial Fleet of Rome, even as he asked divers to go down again and check this and that street again because the bakery should be right up here around the corner!
During WW2, he did his best to protect his treasures in the museum from all-comers, hiding some from Nazi art thieves and vandals and sandbagging others to shelter them from Allied bombs. Fortunately, bombs never hit the museum, though Maiuri harbored a grudge against US planes for bombing Pompeii itself when they thought Germans were using the ancient town as a munitions depot. (Apparently, they were not.)
A truly remarkable man to whom those of us interested in ancient ruins owe so much.
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Favorite thing: The frescoes most photographed and most striking in Herculaneum are undoubedly those in one of the Augustal mansions.
The Augustals were freed slaves, or liberta, who worshiped the emperor Augustus from this meeting hall near the forum as well as other places.
Fondest memory: These frescoes, located in a side room within the hall are striking not only for their quality but also their colours. The one on the left wall shows the entrance of Hercules to Olympus, accompanied by Jupiter (in the form of a rainbow), Juno and Minerva; the one on the right of the room (second pic) shows a battle between Hercules and the Etruscan god Acheloo.
In a caretaker's room at the back a skeleton was found lying on the bed; perhaps he was in some ways lucky and slept through it all.
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The story behind
Favorite thing: The eruption was one of the first to ever be described in detail, on this occasion by Pliny the Younger who was 30kms to the west on a boat. These days vulcanologists use the term "plinian" for the first stage of a devastating volcanic eruption such as occurred here in which dust, cinders, ashes and rocks are blasted high into the air before resettling on earth. This may last for hours or days but no lava is involved. However, for those in the surrounding areas the volumes of material can be enormous.
During the first eight hours of the Vesuvian eruption the area was covered from 2-4 metres with fallout and the massive volume of small rocks caused many roofs to collapse but fortunately was relatively slow allowing many to escape.
Fondest memory: Next came the steam and mud, which is the pyroclastic part, at 30 metres per second approximately so that it took only 4 minutes for both Pompeii and Herculaneum to go under. Herculaneum, once a town of 5,000 people, was ultimately buried under 23 metres of lava and forgotten about inasmuch as the more modern town of Ercolano was built over it.
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- Castles and Palaces
Campania Arte Card
Favorite thing: The Campania Arte Card is a great way to explore Campania's many attractions and archaeological sites. Here's what you need to know in order to take advantage of this deal:
Anyone can use the full-price Arte Card. The reduced-rate card for those 18-25 can only be purchased by people residing in EU countries or countries with a reciprocal agreement with Italy. This does not include American and Canadian citizens. For childen, it is less expensive to simply pay the reduced children's rate at the site entrance.
The three-day card includes free admission to the first two sites and half price admission to any others, plus transportation. You can travel on the local transportation system (Circumvesuviana train, local busses, one return trip on the Metro del Mare's Line 1 and one trip on the airport bus). The three-day card costs EUR 25 for adults or EUR 18 for those 18-25 (see above).
The seven-day card includes free admission to all the sites for a week, but no transportation. It costs EUR 28 for adults and EUR 21 for those 18-25 (see above). If you're moving to the area, a year-round card is also available.
The card is available for purchase at the entrance to the sites, usually in the bookstore or information center. Once you buy the card, write your name and the date on the back and go to the ticket window, where they will activate your card.
You can enter each site only once using the card. No repeat vists are allowed.
Popular sites include Pompeii, Herculaneum, Paestum and it's museum, and the Naples Archaeological Museum. Included are also a variety of discounts on local services and tourist attractions.
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Ancient Tragedy on the Bay Of Naples Shores
Favorite thing: Ancient Herculaneum was an elegant city of the Roman empire, located on a narrow strip of land between the sea and the base of Mount Vesuvius. The town was founded by the Greeks in the 4th century BC . As the legend goes it was Hercules himself who founded the city hence Herculaneum - the town of Hercules.
Towards the 1st century BC the town became a resort center for the Roman aristocracy. In 79 AD, instead of being buried in a layer of ash and cinders like Pompeii, Ercolano was drowned in a torrent of fiery mud. When the mud solidified it sealed the city in an extraordinary manner. The eruption was described by Pliny the Younger in two letters to Tacitus; the horrible event buried Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae under cinders, ashes, and mud. The writer’s uncle, Pliny the Elder was killed by the eruption, which he had come to investigate.
Frequent eruptions have been recorded since then, notably in 512, in 1631, six times in the 18th century, eight times in the 19th century, and only three times during the last century - in 1906, 1929, and 1944.
Fondest memory: With such perfect backdrop as Vesuvius any visit to the Bay of Naples area should include a visit to Herculaneum. It is unjustly less famous than its bigger sister Pompeii as the state of preservation of the buildings are generally much superior. We spent half a day here after climbing Mt Vesuvius and enjoyed every minute of our visit.
- Historical Travel
Don't miss it.
Favorite thing: Herculaneum is a don't miss in Italy. While Pompeii is vaster, Herculaneum's sights are much more condensed and better preserved. One villa has a virtually intact ceiling in a room. The baths are in a fine state of preservation; the Temple to the Devine Augustus enchanting. For the sore of feet, it is not nearly so spread out as Pompeii. While Herk can be done in a half day, we took nearly a day to examine everything. The only negative is that most of the best mosaics, frescos, and statuary have been removed to the National Archeological Museum in Naples (also a do not miss). However, this is also true of Pompeii and Rome.
Fondest memory: If you are interested in Rome or roman history, you cannot miss Herculaneum. The statue of Balbus in front of the public baths shows how Romans created statues in layers.
Where is Herculaneum located?
This gives you a rough idea where Herculaneum / Ercolano is located. Click on the map, so you can see the red little dot.
Herculaneum is located in the region of Campania, just south of Naples, or maybe better said, in the city of Naples. It is 6 kilometres to the south for the city centre and easily reached by train.
From Sorrento to Herculaneum is about 45 kilometres. But beware, this is a very busy and winding road. An good alternative for the car is going by train.
The Site in February
Favorite thing: We used the three-day combined ticket to enter the site; however, the free booklet referred to before was not available but we were given a site map. The entrance to the site itself is now over a span bridge, rather than decending to the lower level - slightly un-nerving for those of us who don't like heights but the end is worth the pain! If there is a snack bar or loos or book shop down in the site itself, we didn't find it. The main ticket office building has loos but no snack bar.
When you come in off the main street and before you walk to the ticket office, stop and look down at the site. Here it is that you become aware of the amount of digging that had to be done to excavate the site.
We arrived soon after noon and for the next four hours, once the English tour group mentioned had gone, there was just the two of us and a French family in the entire site.
Fondest memory: A group of English tourists who passed us complaining that the tour group planners should have taken into account that they are "old age pensioners" and conducted the tour accordingly!! I wish I could have been with them in Pompeii, as Herculaneum is much easier on the old feet!!
- Museum Visits