Friday, December 4, 2009

Herculaneum (November 23, 2009)

On the morning of the 23rd we woke up to a slightly cloudy day in Herculaneum. Although less popular than Pompeii, Herculaneum is famous among archeologists for its fabulously preserved Roman town which, like Pompeii, was destroyed during the 79AD eruption of nearby Mt. Vesuvius. When the mountain erupted, Pompeii, which is located to the south east of the volcano, was covered with a thick layer of ash and volcanic debris. Herculaneum, which is located closer to the volcano and directly to the west was, instead, covered with very little ash but a very thick layer of protoclastic flow (lava). Because the lava slowly filled in the houses and buildings of the city, they were left in a much better state than those of Pompeii. In the case of Pompeii, ash and volcanic debris which fell on the city caused most roofs to collapse and was much more destructive.

In the photo below, you can see a statue of Herculaneum's main benefactor who would have passed away before the destruction of his city. Below the platform with his statue lie the boat houses which used to reside along the coast of the town. During most of the past century it was believed that most of Herculaneum's inhabitants were able to escape because very few remains were found in the city. However, when these boathouses began to be excavated in 1982 around 250 skeletal remains where found huddled together in the boathouses. It is thought that the inhabitants of the town fled to the shore for safety here or until they could escape by boat. Many of them carried precious belongings like jewelry and also their house keys - a sign that they had time to prepare to leave and that they expected to someday return to their homes. Archeologists believe that they would have been killed instantly by the heat as the 750 degree F wave of protoplasmic ash, gas, and lava flowed over the town at 100 mph.

After having heard about Herculaneum for many years, I was very excited to visit it in person. The main level of the city is now well above the height of the excavation because the lava flow buried the ancient city in 60 to 80 of volcanic debris. When you go to visit Herculaneum you therefore have to walk down a bit to enter the city at what used to be sea level. We went down by way of a tunnel through the lava. When we came out, we were standing on what used to be the edge of the sea. Looking to the right, we could see the boat houses that were along the shore and the building that housed the public baths. The wall to the right of the buildings is the wall of lava that was dug out during the excavations.

As we began our tour, we first passed by the ancient benefactor of Herculaneum (sadly I can't remember his name).

He seemed very noble.

The first building we went into was the Suburban Baths. Currently it is closed to the public because it has become unstable and is being repaired by conservation workers. Hopefully it will soon be safe again for all visitors. Thankfully, we were able to tour it because Woodley's parents had made some special arrangements ahead of time. Below is the view that would have greeted the Romans when they came to have their bath. The bust and bowl in the center was once a functional fountain.

On the floor, to the side of the fountain, our guides pointed out the lead nuts and bolts that held the pipes for the fountain in place. Although I had always heard about the Roman water system and their use of lead pipes, it was amazing to see the actual lead structures themselves. Somehow I hadn't envisioned them being quite that advanced.

Near the statue, but looking back towards the entrance to the baths.

There were several rooms in the Suburban Baths, a room with a cool pool for bathing, a hot pool for bathing, and a very large pool that would have been a comfortable temperature for swimming about. The pools were heated using a wood burning furnace with pipes to direct the heat to the various pools and rooms. It was very impressive! Sadly it was also very dark so I don't have any other good photos of those rooms.

At a nearby villa the red paint on the walls was still visible and it was easy to see that the Romans loved using bright colors to decorate their houses. The mosaic marble floor was also very impressive.

In front of doors leading into several rooms of a fancy villa there were marble "door mats" that were quite lovely:

One of the amazing things about Herculaneum is that many pieces of organic matter were preserved when the first protoplasmic flow came through. The intense heat carbonized the surface of organic materials and removed water from them. They were then covered with lava and thus sealed off from the air for centuries. Because of that, items that you would normally expect to be ruined over time - like wood, rope, grain, and even bread - were preserved (although in a blacked state).

Below is a view into a Roman wine shop. The black beams are actual pieces of wood that have been preserved from the Roman days - with some support from newer materials. On the floor and on the walls you can see the barrels that would have held the wine. On the door outside was a sign showing the prices of the 3 different types of wine sold in this shop.

Looking to the left side of the wine shop you can see more wooden doors and up above, in the corner, you can just make out the corner piece of what would have been the shop keeper's bed. Amazing!

In another villa was this amazing mosaic. If you look closely, you can see that it was surrounded by sea shells which were pressed into the mortar. The walls on the sides of the mosaic were painted bright red and orange hues and covered with designs of plant life. I think they were a bit more adventurous when it came to interior design than I would be. :)

On the side of one of the city streets, we were able to see the actual Roman pipes which would have brought fresh water to each of the houses. Amazing! I never would have imagined such normal looking pipes!

Speaking of water, it seems that one of the biggest problems with preserving Herculaneum is dealing with water that makes its way down into the site. Current conservation work is attempting to collect and pump out rainwater that falls onto the site. They have discovered that the best way to collect the water is to use the original Roman sewer system which contains pipes of up to 4 feet in diameter. They are now running modern pipes through these old pipes to direct the water down to the ancient shoreline where it will be collected and pumped away from the city.

Another interesting thing about Herculaneum is that, unfortunately, many of the statues, mosaics, and other artistic or valuable pieces of the city were removed by the Bourbons in the early 18th century. Because Herculaneum was covered in thick rock-like lava, robbers, and later the Bourbons, developed a system of tunneling through the lava to remove valuable pieces of art. The developed a system of tunneling around the perimeter of buildings which was where many of the mosaics and statues could be found. Sadly this means that many of the city's beautiful works of art were removed before archeologists began their excavations. However, due to the thick nature of the lava, the tunnels were only dug in certain areas and there is still much to be discovered.

More beautiful frescos:

Outside again and above the excavation, Mount Vesuvius looms over it all. Thankfully there is now a weather station half way up the mountain where geologists keep a careful watch out for any volcanic activity.

Below you can see the excavation in the foreground and the modern day city of Herculaneum in the distance. There are many more ancient buildings buried under the city but sadly they will not be excavated any time soon because it would require tearing down buildings that are in use.

Our last stop at Herculaneum was to the boat museum where you can see an ancient boat which was recovered on the shores of the ancient city. Along with the boat, there are also fish hooks, fishing nets, and rope on display.

By the time we left, I felt like I had really learned quite a bit about the ancient city. Although it is smaller than Pompeii, I would definitely recommend it if you are interested in archeology or Roman history!

We said goodbye and hopped into the car for the 4 hour drive up to Tuscany!


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