BAY OF NAPLES, ITALY – Almost two thousand years ago, Vesuvius a huge volcano erupted with spectacular force. Half of the mountain exploded into the atmosphere. Ash, debris and rock poured from the sky like rain, changing the landscape of the area forever. The town of Pompeii was covered in a layer of volcanic ash and stone. The small seaside town of Herculaneum, to the west, was covered in a blanket of pyroclastic material more than 20 meters deep. Both towns lay covered and forgotten for centuries.
VESUVIUS ERUPTS – In August, 79 AD Vesuvius erupted with spectacular force. A huge column of volcanic material poured from the volcano, catapulted by intense pressure high, high, high into the atmosphere. It is estimated that the volcano fired material at least 14 kilometres into the stratosphere. This material then fell as a rain of pumice, rock and ash on the town of Pompeii to the south of Vesuvius. A little further to the west, the town of Herculaneum was engulfed by a pyroclastic flow, a huge cloud of ash, volcanic debris and rain. Temperatures in the ‘cloud’ would have been more than 400 degrees centigrade. The pyroclastic flow was probably travelling at 80 kms per hour (50 mph). This flow of material would have engulfed and killed every living thing in its path. The small seaside town of Herculaneum was covered in a blanket of volcanic material more than 20 meters deep. This sediment solidified creating a very hard, weather-resistant rock known as tufa. Meanwhile at Pompeii ash, rock and debris poured from the sky, raining down on the people and streets of the town. Local people ran for cover, but the intensity of the heat and the noxious gases in the air caused almost immediate death. Pompeii was covered in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice to a depth of about 4-6 metres. Both towns lay forgotten for generations.
The eruption of Vesuvius totally changed the landscape of this area. The two towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum lay buried by many metres of volcanic material, mostly ash and volcanic rock at Pompeii and pyroclastic flow material at Herculaneum. Before the eruption there had been a series of huge earthquakes. Many of the local people would have fled the area before the volcanic eruption occurred. The people who remained, tried to escape but they were not successful. The towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried and largely forgotten for more than fifteen hundred years. There was nothing left to see – everything was buried.
DISCOVERY – Then in the early 18th century a local well was being dug near the site of Herculaneum. It was a very deep well, workmen had to dig through many metres of dense, hard volcanic rock. At the bottom of the shaft they found some incredible statues. These statues, now known as the ‘Herculaneum Women’ were discovered adjacent to the ancient city’s theatre. The timing of this discovery was perfect. It was the early days of the Grand Tour in Europe, and visitors were coming to Italy in increasing numbers, to discover the history, art and culture of Italy and the Roman Empire. There was huge demand from these ‘tourists’ to purchase Roman souvenirs to take home. When the local Prince heard about the workmen’s discovery of some antique statues, he immediately negotiated to buy the land. He then financed the construction of a series of tunnels to be built from the base of the well enabling him to discover what might be buried there. This was the start of excavation at Herculaneum and ten years later at Pompeii. A desire to discover the past and to literally unearth treasures, long buried beneath our feet, created a passion for a new science called archaeology. A new subject had been born, literally ‘arkhaiología‘ from the Ancient Greek meaning antiquarian lore, legend or history and ‘arkhaîos‘ meaning primal, old or ancient plus ‘lógos‘ meaning speech, oration or area of study. Simply put this means archaeo- + -logy is the study of old things.
A Swiss architect and engineer called Karl Weber was put in charge of the excavations at Herculaneum. Numerous tunnels and shafts were dug to try to discover what was hidden beneath the surface. Literally hundreds of statues, sculptures, bronzes, ceramics and papyrus scrolls were unearthed. Even items of furniture, chairs, beds and tables were found in a ‘carbonised’ blackened state. Weber recorded his findings in a very important and influential book called Le Antichità di Ercolano esposte – The Antiquities of Herculaneum Exposed. This book consisted of eight volumes and was a ‘must have’ coffee table or library decoration of the 18th century. It recorded and described many of the treasures found at Herculaneum and many from Pompeii too. This book was given, as a gift, to many of the aristocratic families of Europe.
News of the discoveries at Herculaneum and Pompeii fascinated the educated men and women of Europe. From clubs in London to coffee shops in Vienna the talk was of these exceptional and ancient classical statues found in the shadows of Mount Vesuvius. By the 1750s the King of Naples, Charles III was funding the excavations. At about this time the Villa dei Papiri, Villa of the Papyrus was discovered. This enormous and majestic villa is still only partly excavated. The villa was found to have a private library, containing thousands of papyrus scrolls. Effectively it was the largest classical (Roman) library ever discovered. The scrolls were all turned to carbon by the heat of the eruption in AD 79, however using modern analysis techniques some of the scrolls have been translated. This huge villa is thought to have been the home of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. Certainly it has fired the imagination of many. In the 1970s John Paul Getty the American philanthropist, modelled his art gallery in California on the Villa dei Papiri. It is located in Malibu just north of Los Angeles.
These archaeological discoveries at Herculaneum coincided with a period of volcanic activity around the Bay of Naples. Vesuvius was frequently emitting lava and gas, creating a spectacular nightly show for visitors. Perhaps it was the original and natural ‘son et lumiere’! Between 1630 and 1830 more than thirty lava flows were recorded on the slopes of Vesuvius. William Hamilton, British Ambassador to the Court of Naples was fascinated by ‘vulcanology’ and observed Vesuvius and its lava flows. He wrote several papers on ‘volcanoes’ and submitted them to the Royal Society, London. In fact he was awarded a medal for his contribution to science. It was fashionable at this time for educated young people to take an interest in the natural world around them. The young grand tourists would frequently sketch and record the temples, excavations and historic sites they visited. In Naples and the surrounding area they were spoiled for choice. Numerous painters, poets and writers arrived in Naples to admire Vesuvius and to visit the exceptional collection of antiquities displayed at the Royal Palace in Naples.
It is fascinating to consider that the eruption of Vesuvius almost two thousand years ago preserved the Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii at a fixed point in time. This has given archaeologists and historians a treasure trove of information and material to examine and to interprete. Even today 250 years after excavations began at Herculaneum half of the town remains underground. At Pompeii at least a third of the site remains unexcavated. In the 1980s a large number of skeletons were found in the old seafront area of Herculaneum. The bodies are curled up, sheltering, trying to protect themselves. Perhaps they’d run to the port to try and escape by ship. But the hurricane force winds associated with the volcano, created terrifying onshore winds that made departure by boat impossible. Not far from the skeletons, the remains of a military boat have been found. This could have been part of a flotilla sent to rescue the people of Herculaneum, sadly their mission was doomed to failure.
Historians will often say that our understanding of the past is key to our understanding of the present and the future. The bodies found on the waterfront at Herculaneum were ordinary people trying to survive, to preserve their lives, to keep going. People, everyday people like you and me, living their lives, rearing their children, running small businesses, working for a living. But that day in August, 79 AD Vesuvius had other ideas and our human ancestors were victims of the power of nature, the power of our natural environment, which is changing and evolving. Today Vesuvius is monitored constantly for seismic activity, we have the ability to record earth movements, tremors and pressure increase in the lithosphere. However, if there was an eruption, a big eruption, the consequences would be remarkably similar to 2000 years ago. It pays to respect our environment and never to forget its strength.
- Official web site of the Herculaneum excavations: http://ercolano.beniculturali.it/
- A pyroclastic cloud or flow is a volume of material produced by a volcanic eruption. The pyroclastic flow is made up of mud, debris, rock, lava, gas and is typically very, very hot and completely toxic. Sometimes known as a ‘nubi ardente’ silver cloud.
- For more on the ‘Grand Tourists’ and the ‘Grand Tour’ you can read an article about the history of the ‘Grand Tour’ which I wrote: The Grand Tour
- Further reading: Herculaneum – a very bright future…..
- Volcanoes and Earthquakes in Italy
- Friends of Herculaneum Society – http://www.herculaneum.ox.ac.uk/ this is a group of scholars, academics and people interested in Herculaneum, who meet regularly to discuss the site and its importance.
- I’ll be writing about my recent visits to Herculaneum in forthcoming articles.
- If you find yourself in Herculaneum it is well worth visiting Oplontis to see the spectacular villa there.
- A little further afield is Paestum. At Paestum there is a group of superb Greek Temples, pre-dating the Parthenon, Athens. A wonderful, inspirational place to visit. Paestum – Greek Temples, Tomb Paintings & Ristorante Nettuno
- Poignant details regarding the ‘Bodies in the workshops lining the old coastline at Herculaneum’ discovered in the 1980s:
- ‘Negli anni ’80 dello scorso secolo, sull’antico litorale ercolanese, all’interno delle arcate che si aprivano sulla spiaggia, vennero alla luce i corpi di oltre trecento fuggiaschi che nella notte dell’eruzione avevano abbandonato le loro case scappando verso il mare sperando nell’arrivo di soccorsi. La loro aspettativa fu vanificata da una nube ardente che bruciò per sempre i sogni e le speranze di queste persone. Particolarmente toccante fu la scoperta del corpo di una giovane donna incinta e prossima al parto; dalla stessa furono recuperati i resti di un bambino mai nato di circa otto mesi. Il corpo di un’altra donna, riccamente adorna di orecchini, anelli e bracciali fu presentato dalla stampa dell’epoca come quello della “Signora dei gioielli”.
- The guides I would recommend are: Sara Prossomariti at Herculaneum and Silvia Braggio at Paestum. Contact me for more details.
Today at Herculaneum:
To prove that the early days of archaeology are still inspiring us today – only two weeks ago I took a stroll through the Architecture Biennale currently on show in Venice and this is what I cam across in the Belgian Pavilion:
If you can’t bring yourself to travel to Naples to visit Herculaneum and Pompeii you can discover a great deal of classical architecture and sculpture at the John Soane Museum, London: The Soane – my favourite London museum
Pietro Fabris was an artist and illustrator employed by William Hamilton (1730-1803). Hamilton was the royal envoy in Naples in the 18th century and famed for his parties and hospitality. Fabris was employed to paint images of volcanic activity and archaeological sites in and around Naples. One of his famous excavation images has been redrawn and is on show at Venice’s Architectural Biennale (2021).
- Written: December 2017
- Updated: July 2021