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Photo Tour: A Return To Herculaneum

Almost everyone has heard of Pompeii, but I’ve always favored its sister city, Herculaneum, which was buried in the same eruption as Pompeii in AD 79, but is smaller, less overrun with tourists. My imagination was captured by this book when I read it in college:

Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure

On my recent visit in October 2013, I found a lot has changed in Herculaneum since I last visited 11 years ago. Some of the changes have been improvements–a visitors’ center, and new ramps and walkways to access the ancient city, which lies in a large pit 16 feet below modern Ercolano–but other changes are due to neglect and erosion.

Our local guide was excellent, leading us on a fairly complete tour of  the city…or at least, what’s still open and accessible to visitors. I noticed that many of the remaining frescoes in the homes are now faded to the point of near-invisibility. Many other houses and streets were closed awaybehind bars and scaffolding, with signs pointing out that restoration work was in progress.

On this visit, we were not able to tour any of the houses of the rich, built on a terrace which once overlooked the waterfront, nor could we enter the Surburban Baths built just below this terrace; I was able to tour both places 11
years ago.

And one of my favorite streets, where the houses still had their wood-and-plaster second stories overhanging the street, is now sadly altered.

Torrential rains over the past several years caused the front of second story to shear away and collapse. I have a photo taken 11 years ago, where I’m standing on this street. I had one of the other members of the group take another photo of me standing in the same place 11 years later. It’s  interesting to compare and contrast the two photos.

All that being said, it was really wonderful to wander the streets of Herculaneum once more, and visit the various houses, shops, and temples.

I studied this city as part of one of my college courses, and have done a lot of  reading since then, so I feel like I know this place and its inhabitants pretty well.

Only about 20% of the city has been excavated, due to the challenges of removing the thick layer of concrete-like pyroclastic flow from the volcanic eruption, which helped preserve wooden furniture and even food in an airtight environment for 2000 years. Plus, the modern city is built on top of the old in a tightly-packed mass of ugly apartment buildings, so any further excavations would entail buying one or more buildings, demolishing them, and then excavating underneath.

Since the Italian government is struggling to preserve and restore what’s already been exposed, the decision was made 20 years ago not to excavate further, for the time being.

When we reluctantly began to make our way towards the exit in the late afternoon, the way out took us past a grim memorial: the cavernous boat sheds built into the bluff along the erstwhile shore (since the eruption, the sea is
now a good mile away).

Within the sheds still lie the bones and skulls of several hundred people, the citizens and slaves of Herculaneum, who fled the city when the eruption began, and sought shelter on the beach, hoping for rescue by the Roman navy.

When a superheated pyroclastic wave rolled over the city, they were all instantly cooked to death. Because only a few corpses had been found in the city itself, it had long been thought that most of Herculaneum’s citizens escaped the eruption, until the boat sheds were excavated in the 1980s, and the grim discovery of what had *really* happened to Herculaneum’s inhabitants.

It was a somber sight as the afternoon’s golden light began to retreat from Herculaneum’s ruined houses and deserted streets, and the ghost city was cast into shadow within its pit.

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Photo Tour: A Return To Pompeii

In case you’re wondering why so many weeks have gone by with no new posts, it’s because I’ve been traveling. I just returned from a marvellous archaeological tour of Sicily and southern Italy, finishing up in the Bay of Naples with visits to two of my favorite archaeological sites: Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The tour allotted an entire day in Pompeii, giving our small group a chance to see the city in depth. This is my fourth visit to this ancient Roman city, and it was really nice to visit some of the houses, theaters, public baths, and even a brothel, in the company of Professor Bob Bianchi.

I also had a decent camera along this time–I’ve taken up photography as a new hobby–and luck with the weather. The last time I was in Pompeii, eleven years ago, it was raining cats and dogs, and I had a rather primitive point-and-shoot Olympus digital camera.

I’ll be sharing more photos in the weeks to come, but for now, here are my impressions of a beautiful autumn day spent wandering the streets, homes, and public buildings of Pompeii:

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Roman Life: The Ghost City Of Herculaneum

Back in the stone ages, when I was in college, I took an introductory archaeology course, and was instantly captivated by the story of Pompeii’s sister city Herculaneum, also buried in the infamous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.

Herculaneum is much better-preserved than Pompeii. Where Pompeii was buried in a layer of light ash, which allowed the wood-and-plaster second stories of houses to rot away, and looters from later centuries to dig tunnels and haul out treasures willy-nilly, Herculaneum was buried in the boiling mud of the pyroclastic flow that killed all of the city’s inhabitants who had taken refuge in the stone boat sheds along the town’s waterfront.

That mud later dried to the consistency of concrete, sealing and preserving fragile items like wood, string…even the interrupted lunches abandoned by panicked citizens. In one house, archaeologists found a carbonized loaf of bread and a bowl of dates.

When I enjoyed my own lunch in the modern city of Ercolano, built above the ruins of the old Herculaneum, I was struck by the fact that we were served round loaves of bread that looked identical to the ones I saw in the museum. Talk about a culinary tradition of long standing!

The book that really brought the ancient city to life for me was Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure.

I took this book with me to Italy when I finally visited Pompeii and Herculaneum years later. It was very odd to walk the unearthed streets of the city, and walk through houses where I “knew” the owners–the names of their spouses and children, what they did for a living, their financial trials and tribulations, lawsuits they’d been embroiled in…I still have a battered copy on my Keeper Shelf in my little library at home.

I’ve now visited Herculaneum twice, and I’d like to share some of my photos from my most recent trip, in April 2002.

Herculaneum – April 2002

The Glory That Was Rome

The Roman Empire is one of my favorite historical periods–culturally, artistically, and politically. Though I haven’t [yet] written any historical fiction set in that time period, I’ve been studying it since I was in grade school, and over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit many Roman sites in England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Greece, and Turkey.

What surprises me is how often Roman buildings are still used, in one form or another. Many Roman theaters and amphitheaters throughout Europe and Anatolia still host plays, operas, and concerts (the perfect acoustics in the theaters mean that you don’t need microphones or sound systems); the throne room of Emperor Constantine in Trier, Germany, has been in continuous use since it was built, and is still used as a church; several Roman amphitheaters in southern France still host bullfights (a blood sport that your average Roman citizen would no doubt have enjoyed).

On a more personal level, there are many old European houses and fortifications built on Roman foundations. An ex-boyfriend of mine used to complain about the bureaucratic difficulties of trying to renovate or even repair his family’s home near Heidelberg in Germany. The house was very old, and a registered historical monument, built on the foundations of a Roman villa and with Roman-era cellars still used by the family.  He was uninterested in my enthusiasm for visiting Roman ruins, telling me, “I live in that old rubble! Why would I want to see more of it!”

I think that might have been the beginning of the end of our relationship. *g*

A friend of mine, a schoolteacher, recently asked me to put together a few slideshows for her sixth-grade class. I thought I’d share them here, as well, over the next couple of weeks.

The first slideshow focuses on public buildings–chariot-racing stadiums, public baths, shopping districts, and (the class favorite, as it turned out) public latrines.

Roman public architecture

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