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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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