You have probably never heard of the ruins of Herculaneum, but undoubtedly know about Pompeii. Both towns were destroyed by the same eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. Herculaneum is not far from Naples and can easily be visited either as a day trip or on the way to the Amalfi Coast.
I looked for a simple guide to visiting Herculaneum, but most of them were really heavy going, laden with historical facts that made my head spin. This is my simplified version.
The town of about 6000 people lay buried for centuries. The town was covered by a molten lava flow of about 15-18 metres in depth instead of the volcanic ash that covered Pompeii. It formed an airtight seal which made the site extremely difficult to excavate. The upside of this was that the town wasn’t looted. Many priceless artefacts and historical details were uncovered with the excavation that had been lost at Pompeii.
A new town, Ercolano soon was built on top of the town that lay hidden below.
The site was first established in the 6th Century BC. Popular mythology has it that the town was founded by Hercules hence the origins of the name Herculaneum (Roman) and Herakleion (Greek)
Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was a resort town for the wealthy. This is evident in the quality of the artefacts found as well as in the design of the houses, many of which are double storied. The increased height of the buildings allowed their owners to have spectacular views over the Gulf of Naples.
Guide to visiting Herculaneum a time capsule
Herculaneum was discovered by accident in 1709 when a well was being dug. While exploring further an ancient theatre was discovered below. This led to tunnels being built and many of the treasures being looted. The humidity in the ground preserved the timber-framed wooden houses, original doors and wooden furniture. Carbonised loaves of bread were even found in the ovens.
Serious excavation only began in 1927 and much of the site remains shut for exploration purposes to this day. Since 1997 a concerted effort is being made to preserve, restore and uncover more treasures from the site. It was added to UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997.
Initially, there were very few skeletons and it was assumed that most of the people escaped. Many did, in fact, try and leave by boat but were overcome by poisonous gasses. It was only in 1980 that archaeologists discovered about 300 skeletons on what would have been the shoreline. It is quite disconcerting to see the skeletons, but they do form part of the story so they have a place.
As you walk along the column-lined streets it is hard to believe that what you are seeing is over 2000 years old. Many of the buildings have their original mosaic floors, artwork adorns the walls, and there are statues watching over you as you explore. This gives you an incredible insight into the daily lives of a civilisation long forgotten.
The bath houses and a couple of the other sites sadly were closed when I visited. It is estimated that they have only uncovered around 25% of the town. I can’t even begin to imagine what’s lying hidden waiting to be found. If what you can see now is anything to go on, it must be amazing!
I was fascinated by the thermopolia. This word originates from a Greek word, meaning “a place where hot food is sold”. So in fact, I suppose this is an early example of your local fast food establishment. The taverns have counter tops with holes on the surface and jars set underneath for storing the hot food.
Terrace of Marco Nonio Balbo
Marco Nonio Balbo was a patron of Herculaneum and a senator of Cyrene and Crete. When he died he was cremated and the ashes were stored in a clay container inside the marble plinth beneath his statue. If you are looking for this it is just outside the bathhouse.
The House of the Relief of Telephus
This house is thought to have belonged to Marco Balbo. It is a colourful structure with several rooms. Large discs hang between the pillars at the entrance to ward off evil.
The College of the Augustales
The cult of Augustus was a society of freed slaves who lived in Herculaneum and were considered full citizens. Below is a photo of the temple within the College building, dedicated to Hercules, where the Augustales met. This building was a centre of the cult.
Sacellum of Four Gods
There were four gods worshipped in Herculaneum -Mercury, Minerva, Neptune and Volcano. There are a couple of relief style sculptures left.
Guide to Visiting Herculaneum
- From the A3 motorway take the exit for Ercolano and then look for the brown road signs to Ercolano Scavi.
- There is a large underground car park a short distance from the entrance
- Be sure to get off at the Ercolano Scavi station. From the station, it is about a ten minute walk down the hill.
- 08h30-17h30 from 1 April to 31 October, last entrance at 18h00.
- The rest of the year – 08h30 -17h00 with last entrance at 15h30.
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