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. 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 into 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.
About 5,000 people lived in Herculaneum when it was destroyed, many of them fishermen, craftsmen, and artists. 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 (Villa of Papayri), 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. You can view full-color virtual reproductions in the nearby MAV museum. Also worth special attention are the carbonized remains within the Casa del Tramezzo di Legno (House of the Wooden Partition).
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, which is divided into numbered blocks, or insulae. Splurge on an audio guide (€6.50 for one, €10 for two), and then head down the tunnel to start the tour at the old shoreline. Most of the houses are open and a representative 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). North of this 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. Both the Casa dei Cervi (House of the Stags) and the Terme Suburbane (Suburban Baths) are closed for restoration. As an alternative, you can head to the House of the Ship, which contains a small Roman vessel whose wood and equipment has survived very much intact. At the entrance you can pick up a copy of "Pianta degli Scavi Archeologici di Ercolano," the excellent free pamphlet and map about the site that's as good as most of the guides you must pay for.
Corso Resina 6, Ercolano, 80056, Italy
Oct 7, 2006
a super exciting adventure that you should not miss under any circumstances
Sep 6, 2004
Trying to park in the town of Herculaneum is an exercise in pure madness. That aside, this is a marvelous site, much more manageable in size than Pompeii. It is also less barren, more trees and greenery, as well as having better preserved buildings (some still contain the original wood beams and a few bits of furniture). Not to be missed.