Pompeii is one of the largest tourist attractions in the Naples area. It is notorious around the world as the city that was lost in the eruption of Vesuvius 2000 years ago and then rediscovered a few hundred years ago. However, it was not the only city that was buried in the ash of Vesuvius and 4 other archaeological sites exist in the area. The best preserved and most lavish of these towns is Herculaneum.
Herculaneum was a wealthy sea-side town comprised of rural villas owned by wealthy Romans. During its time, it was located at the edge of the water, but today it is set a kilometre back from the shore.
The ruins are located about 30 feet below modern ground level. To enter the ruin, you can take a bridge across the swamp to the upper layers, or enter the tunnel and take the stairs down to the old water gate entrance, pictured above.
If you chose to enter through the water gate, the first thing you will see are the remains of the people who were unable to flee the city successfully. The bodies of many people survived in Herculaneum, while those at Pompeii decomposed long ago, leaving only air pockets in the volcanic ash.
Herculaneum is tiered, which would have provided the most central and wealthy villas with beautiful views of the sea. The gardens and patios have been preserved and restored in places, providing an idea of the leisure and luxury the residents enjoyed.
Though the upper levels of the city approach modern ground level, the majority of the city is still buried beneath modern day Ercolano. Many artifacts were removed in the 18th century by tunnelling underneath the modern city. Today, tunnelling is not used as a means of excavation and as a result excavation has come to a halt at Herculaneum.
Despite the halt to excavation, Herculaneum has still been a wealth of knowledge for archaeologists. The site is better preserved than Pompeii as a result of being impacted by Vesuvius differently, not being subjected to 200 years of developing archaeologic techniques, and much of it remaining buried. Furthermore, the wealth of the residents meant that the city was very well appointed; rich with statues, frescos, shrines, and artifacts.
My favourite thing about Herculaneum was the amount of carbonized wood in the city. Most of the wood that survived is in the form of door lintels and support beams such as the photo above. There are also partial floors, walls, window bars, and sections of wood staircases that were preserved beneath the ash.
All of the villas in Herculaneum contained private shrines and fountains. Miraculously, many of them, as well as their very detailed artwork, have survived. This mosaic within a frescoed wall is partially decorated with shells.
The frescoes and other artwork have retained their original vibrant pigments. Once these are uncovered at any of the Pompeii archaeological sites, they present an immediate conservation issue as they become exposed to the climate. Often, they are protected by glass plates or a roof is erected above them. Many of the roofs in Herculaneum have survived or been reconstructed.
Pompeii contains dozens of food shops, while Herculaneum only has a few. The midday meal was often eaten on the go, rather than at home. The concept of “take-away” was a long standing institution in Roman times. Terra cotta pots installed into a marble topped counter were used to store hot food at these street food markets.
I will post my photos from Pompeii soon!
I loved Pompeii, but my experience there was enhanced by my visit to Herculaneum. Although it is small, it has been preserved in a way that Pompeii has not been. It also did not suffer the garage of bombs that Pompeii suffer in 1943. I highly recommend visiting Herculaneum before visiting Pompeii.