A week ago today we visited Herculaneum; which is the smaller, less well known cousin to the famous Pompeii, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
Originally the husband wanted to go to Pompeii, as he said “no-one ever says Herculaneum is on their bucket list” but after advice from my Dad and further investigation, it became clear that Herculaneum was the one for us – further vindicated by some people at our hotel who visited both and said Herculaneum was better (I do love knowing we’ve done the right thing!)
Unlike Pompeii which was covered by ash, Herculaneum was covered by volcanic gas and mud, which meant it was better preserved. It was also under 20 metres of volcano eruption coverage, unlike the 4 metres covering Pompeii, which again added to the quality of preservation. While Herculaneum is a smaller site, it does make it easier to get around and see everything, and there are actual buildings and decorations still in tact.
We hopped on the train in Sorrento and got off about an hour later at Ercolano. I expected the site to be in the middle of nowhere, but it’s just at the bottom of a hill in the middle of the town. In fact, much of Herculaneum remains underground – an estimated 75% – because the town of Ercolano with it’s businesses and residents is thriving above it.
On entering the site you get an overview of the full excavation site, and it’s mindblowing. It’s like looking back into history, a very unusual and eerie feeling.
At just 12 euros each to enter, it’s an unmissable visit if you’re in the area and have any interest at all in history and ancient roman culture and way of life. You can employ the services of a guide, or pay for an audio guide, but we preferred to just wander around and immerse ourselves at our own pace.
What I’m about to say next sounds very silly, but it’s how I felt. It’s almost too good. It’s really hard to imagine that the roads and columns and mosaic floors are that old. It could almost be a film set, if that makes sense? It’s really hard to comprehend that you’re looking at thousands of years of history. After all, the eruption happened in 79 A.D but many of the buildings would already have been in existence prior to that – back into B.C territory. That’s almost incomprehensible! When you look at the detail in the brickwork, and the decorative nature of the arches it’s difficult to get your head around (or, at least, it was for me!) The roads and kerb stones are of a quality you just wouldn’t expect for such a long time ago – nothing has changed from how the Romans did it to how it’s done today.
Columns – interesting that that they’re brick built and then rendered and engraved with the decorative line detail.
Many of the buildings still have wall décor in reds and blues.
The mosaic floors are made from hundreds of thousands of tiny tiles – imagine laying them by hand! This one has a mermaid pattern – it was the floor of the public baths (slightly sunken in places, but you can kind of forgive that, considering it’s age!)
Look at the detail in this room.
I assumed these round holes were toilets, but having googled it I found the answer on Sarah Ryan’s blog – they were holes for cooking pots – this may well have been an early form of restaurant or takeaway!
Unfortunately these baths aren’t open to the public due to safety reasons – only scholars and researchers can get access (never been more tempted to lie about my job!) but I took this photograph through the glass. You can imagine they would be absolutely spectacular.
There are artefacts and engravings and statues also scattered around the site.
These skeletons are residents that huddled together in boat houses, presumably awaiting evacuation from the town. The hot gases from the volcanic eruption would have killed them instantly.
Herculaneum was fantastically interesting and worthwhile – truly a memorable experience and a great part of our trip to Italy.