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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
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