Herculaneum, the less famous Pompeii
Less famous than Pompeii but equally fascinating is Herculaneum, the other city destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. As in Pompeii, Herculaneum also has an archaeological park covering the excavations of the ancient buried city. Let’s find out more.
History of Herculaneum
According to legend, Herculaneum was founded by Hercules, returning from Iberia with a herd of oxen. In reality, not much is known about the foundation of the city, as there is a lack of artifacts going back further than the 2nd century BC.
Herculaneum was one of the many beautiful Roman cities around the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, close to the Sorrento Coast and the Amalfi Coast, not far from Pompeii. The town was a popular resort for wealthy Romans and had a residential area, with villas and houses belonging to aristocrats and wealthy citizens. Herculaneum was also a trading port that exported wine and olive oil produced in the countryside around it.
Unfortunately, Herculaneum did not escape the fate of Pompeii on 24th August 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted for eighteen hours burying it and its inhabitants. Compared to Pompeii, Herculaneum did not suffer the rain of ash and lapilli thanks to the favorable wind direction. However, during the night the column of volcanic materials collapsed and the city was hit by incandescent pyroclastic flows at a speed of over a hundred km/h, formed by water, mud, rock, and liquefied pumice. The city was covered by a layer of material 10 to 15 mt high and was abandoned forever. The material, however, once solidified preserved organic materials such as wood, papyrus, and foodstuffs. In addition, due to further eruptions in the following centuries, the layer of material reached a thickness of 25 mt. For these reasons everyone forgot about Herculaneum, and the lost city remained protected from lootings and damages…
The Discovery of Herculaneum
Between 1709 and 1710, during the construction of a well, a peasant found some pieces of marble – the remains of the theatre of ancient Herculaneum.
Prince Emmanuel Maurice d’Elbeuf gave the order to carry out the first excavations, via underground tunnels, but these were interrupted shortly afterward for fear of the collapse of the buildings that had been unknowingly built over the remains of Herculaneum over the centuries.
New explorations began in 1738 but with the discovery of Pompeii men and resources were moved to the new site and excavations at Herculaneum ceased.
A turning point came in 1924 when the excavation again began and in 20 years 4 hectares out of the total 20 of the ancient city were unearthed
In 1997, UNESCO declared the archaeological excavations of Herculaneum, along with those of Pompeii and Oplonti, a World Heritage Site.
The Archaeological Park
The Herculaneum archaeological park, managed by the Herculaneum Conservation Project since 1998, is currently open to visitors. Herculaneum consists of a large excavated area stretching from the northeast corner of the ancient city to its centre.
The excavations consist mainly of houses and some public buildings such as the theatre, the gymnasium, and the sanctuary of Augustus. Herculaneum is smaller than Pompeii but the degree of preservation is much higher due to the rapid burial caused by the incandescent pyroclastic flows. This has resulted in a better state of conservation of mosaics, buildings, and even furniture. Most of the artifacts found at Herculaneum are kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples: these include everyday objects, paintings, mosaics, and statues.
The archaeological park is open to visitors every day, except on 1st January and 25th December, from 8:30 am to 7:00 pm. Access is free for EU citizens under 18 and over 65, as well as for disabled visitors.
For more information about Herculaneum, you can visit the official website of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum (unfortunately, the site is only in Italian).
Visiting Herculaneum today is a unique experience that gives us an insight into life in ancient times, bringing the past to life before our very eyes.
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