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Herculaneum Ruins Review
Lying more than 50 feet below the present-day town of Ercolano, the ruins of Herculaneum are set among the acres of greenhouses that make this area one of Europe's principal flower-growing centers. About 5,000 people lived here when it was destroyed; many of them fishermen, craftsmen, and artists. In AD 79 the gigantic eruption of Vesuvius (which also destroyed Pompeii) buried the town under a tide of volcanic mud. The semiliquid mass seeped into the crevices and niches of every building, covering household objects, enveloping textiles and wood—and sealing all in a compact, airtight tomb.
Excavation began in 1738 under King Charles of Bourbon, using the technique of underground tunnels. Digging was interrupted but recommenced in 1828, continuing until the following century. Today less than half of Herculaneum has been excavated. (With contemporary Ercolano and the unlovely Resina Quarter—famous among bargain hunters for its secondhand-clothing market—sitting on top of the site, progress is limited.) From the ramp leading down to Herculaneum's well-preserved edifices, you get a good overall view of the site, as well as an idea of the amount of volcanic debris that had to be removed to bring it to light.
Though Herculaneum had only one-third the population of Pompeii and has been only partially excavated, what has been found is generally better preserved. In some cases you can even see the original wooden beams, staircases, and furniture. Do not miss the Villa dei Papiri, an excavation in a corner of the site, built by Julius Caesar's father-in-law. The building is named for the 1,800 carbonized papyrus scrolls dug up here in the 18th century, leading scholars to believe that this may have been a study center or library.
Be sure to stock up on refreshments beforehand, as there is no food at the archaeological site. At the entrance, pick up a map showing the gridlike layout of the dig. Splurge on an audio guide (€6.50 for one, €10 for two); then head down the tunnel to start the tour at the old shoreline. Recent restoration means most of the houses are open and a fair cross-section of domestic, commercial, and civic buildings can be seen. Decorations are especially delicate in the Casa del Nettuno ed Anfitrite (House of Neptune and Amphitrite), named for the subjects of a still-bright mosaic on the wall of the nymphaeum (a recessed grotto with a fountain), and in the Terme Femminili (Women's Baths), where several delicate black-and-white mosaics embellished the rooms. Annexed to the former house is a remarkably-preserved wine shop, where amphorae still rest on carbonized wood shelves. On the other side of the house is the Casa del Bel Cortile (House of the Beautiful Courtyard). One of its inner rooms displays a cast taken of three skeletons found in the storerooms down at the old seafront, where almost 300 inhabitants sought refuge from the eruption and were ultimately encapsulated for posterity. The Casa dei Cervi (House of the Stags), with an elegant garden open to the sea breezes, evokes a lively, luxurious way of life. The sumptuously decorated Terme Suburbane (Suburban Baths) is well worth a visit if it is open.
- Address: Corso Resina 6, Ercolano, 80056 | Map It
- Phone: 081/8575347
- Cost: €11 for Herculaneum only; €20 for biglietto cumulativo ticket to 5 sites (Pompeii, Herculaneum, Boscoreale, Oplontis, and Stabiae) valid for 3 days
- Hours: Nov.–Mar., daily 8:30–5, ticket office closes at 3:30; Apr.–Oct., daily 8:30–7:30, ticket office closes at 6.
- Website: www.pompeiisites.org
- Location: Herculaneum
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