The day after I toured Pompeii, I went back down the coast for a second look at ancient volcano ruins; ten minutes closer is the fascinating partially-excavated ruins of Herculaneum, a town about 1/5 the size of Pompeii that was also frozen in time by the Mount Vesuvius eruption of 79 A.D.
Herculaneum is and, I think, always will be only partially excavated because the modern town is built literally right on top of the ancient town. I’m not sure, but I’d also guess that it must be an absolutely massive and dangerous undertaking to excavate any further, as Herculaneum was buried under an astounding 30 feet of pyroclastic flow. (Pompeii was found under around 13 feet of ash.) After walking down a gently sloping curve, I caught my first view of the ancient town:
(By the way, you should be able to click on any of the pictures to enlarge them.)
It’s a particularly dramatic view, seeing the modern town right atop the ancient one, and gaining an immediate sense of how thick the pyroclastic flow was; you’re looking down from the top of it, to where the city once stood.
Two piazzas near the bottom of the picture used to sit above the beach, but now face a sheer face of carved-out flow.
The arches below were where ships docked to load and unload cargo.
After walking down a long, steep tunnel (which reminded me a little of the 3rd infiltration tunnel I visited in Korea last year) and across a suspension bridge, I found myself in the first of those two piazzas, the Terrazza di Marcus Nonio Balbo.
This is where I learned about Marcus Nonio Balbo, the dude who basically ran the joint.
That’s him. This is the first time I remember seeing marble laid over plaster – or at least I think that’s what’s happening here. Interesting…maybe something I saw in Art History class years ago and forgot about. Dude had some abs, right?
The Terrazzo is also where I learned about the trade-off of being here in the off-season: on the bright side there are no lines to wait in or throngs of tourists to wade through, while on the downside more of the sites are closed for restoration. Herculaneum’s baths, housed just off the terrazzo, sounded amazing on the audioguide, but I didn’t get to see any of it.
Yes, I went full-on tourist and got the audioguide! It was hilarious to watch everyone, including myself, walking around with cordless phones glued to their ears, nodding and gawking into the silent air. The guide made the ruins far more interesting though, I’m sure, and I wished I’d rented one for Pompeii the previous day.
There are 47 major sites here, and I can’t possibly get through all of them, but let me give you some of the highlights that I found most interesting.
The gymnasium is enormous, and this shows just one wing of the place. The columns on the right opened onto a huge central square, where games and gladiator fights took place while spectators crowded on the sides. Notice again, how the modern town sits right on top.
Domestic goddesses, behold! A well-preserved clothes press (a huge iron, basically). The clothes were folded (into pleats?), laid between the two planes at the bottom, and then the top plane was cranked down from above.
Unlike at Pompeii, Herculaneum has a surprising amount of wood still intact, though charred to a near-petrified state. This is the remains of a front door. Notice how it seems to be melded into the wall; maybe the heat of the pyroclastic flow sealed them together?
Here, a wonderfully preserved mosaic frieze in vivid blues and reds, adorns the fountain in a small courtyard. (The Romans loved their green spaces and almost all the houses had at least one, squeezed even in the smallest alcoves.) The fountainhead is in the lower center, while the upper section is a big cistern that held the water that flowed through the fountain with the help of gravity. I would guess that the cistern caught rainwater for this purpose, but I don’t know if it was supplemented with other water sources. I believe the recesses on left and right used to hold statues. The top cistern is decorated with masks; these kinds of details are much better preserved in Herculaneum than in Pompeii.
A mosaic wall mural from the same courtyard.
The interior of the Sede degli Augustali, which I gather was sort of a college and socio-religious sect of men who worshipped Augustus. Something like that. The temple space is in the center, with a large gathering hall surrounding it.
A close-up of one of the walls of the temple.
A preserved section of intricate, many-colored marble floor tile in the temple. A skeleton of the Sede’s custodian was found lying in his bed here, in a side room that was closed for renovation. For some reason, this gave me the heebie-jeebies, as I peered into his little cell through a hole in the wall. Eek!
Another closed site, but check out the beautiful mosaic walkway and, beyond, the warped checkerboard floor of the atrium! Lots of floors were caved in like this from the weight of the rubble.
This general store still had pots lining the walls and in the intact wood shelving. Neat!
The remains of a bed frame, inside one of the tiny bedrooms. Seriously, the bedrooms are all about the size of a modern-day king-size bed.
A surprising amount of wood was painted with this beautiful turquoise paint, which caught my eye because it is my very favorite color. (The Hipstamatic actually made it look a little greener than it was.) Is it original? Or some paint job done decades ago to preserve the wood? No idea.
On a wall in the Casa Sannitica, I was taken with this partially destroyed wall fresco, where the layers are visible. In the grey section on the left, you can see how the fresco’s design was scored into the plaster. I don’t know how this helped when the next layer of plaster went over it…a wee bit of an oversight there, Roman artisans. Geez.
The clouds parted just as I was leaving, and the bright late afternoon sun lit up the ruins beautifully.
On the other side of me, I watched the sun heading toward its resting place in the Mediterranean.
At the exit, I found some graffiti…thank God. My day wouldn’t have been complete without it.
There was just enough time to head up to Mount Vesuvius before the sun sank for the night. I drove several windy, switchbacked miles past hotel after hotel, restaurant after restaurant, even nightclubs clinging to the side of the mountain! Alas, when I got to the place where road becomes walking path (the last half mile or so to the summit), the path was closed and I could go no further. Maybe because of the snow on the mountaintop?
The clouds were thick from up here and I couldn’t see much below but, hey. I was on Mount Vesusius! A good ending to a good day.
This post was as overwhelming to put together as the Pompeii post, for some reason. There’s just so much! I’m glad to have it done, so I can get on with multiple posts about my first weekend visit to Rome. I say my first, because it was so freakin’ awesome I’m going back again this weekend! And maybe again the weekend after my trip to Florence. You’ll see. Stay tuned.