Herculaneum archaeological site – Naples
The Herculaneum archaeological site (Italian: Parco Archeologico di Ercolano) features the ruins of the ancient Roman city with the same name, destroyed together with Pompeii by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
The excavation site is located in the Italian town of Ercolano, a comune on the outskirts of Naples.
The first fragments of the lost Roman town were discovered by chance in 1709, during the drilling of a well; yet, a systematic excavation program was not started until 1738 and, with several stop-and-go it still continues today. It is estimated indeed that no more than 20% of the ancient town, which spans some 20 hectares, have been uncovered so far.
A drypoint etching (signed: Segoni) depicting the Herculaneum archaeological site in 1838
View of Herculaneum today (courtyard of the House of the Relief of Telephus); photo: Adam Burt
The unfortunate fate of Herculaneum differed from that of Pompeii in many elements.
The town was hit by a pyroclastic flow, which killed most of its inhabitants, about 12 hours after the destruction of Pompeii; the eruption stopped indeed for some time, and the people of Herculaneum, until then unharmed, thought they were no longer in danger and returned to their homes, where they were hit in the morning of the 25 August by a deadly mixture of incandescent gas, dust, and water.
The city was a center beautifully located at the bottom of Mount Vesuvius and overlooking the Mediterranean sea. So, the Roman historian Lucius Cornelius Sisenna describes the old Herculaneum:
«Oppidum tumulo in excelso loco propter mare, parvis moenibus, inter duos fluvios infra Vesuvium collocatum»
(the town, enclosed by small walls, stands on top of a a promontory by the sea between two rivers at the bottom of the Vesuvius)
After the disaster, Herculaneum was forgotten. A brand new town, originally called Resina and only recently renamed to Ercolano, was built on the layer of hard solidified mud which encased the old Roman center and concealed it for over sixteen centuries.
Panoramic view of the archaeological site; photo: rpslee
Map of the Herculaneum archaeological site; courtesy of Soprintendenza di Pompei
Differences between Pompeii and Herculaneum
The site of Herculaneum is rather different from that of Pompeii nearby. While Pompeii was a wealthy port and a leisure destination, and its urban fabric was somewhat characterized by wide street flanked by rather large buildings, Herculaneum was a more dense urban center, with narrower streets lined by smaller buildings on average.
Yet, in the decades before the eruption, the town had became a vacation resort as well, and some of its most opulent houses had been richly decorated with magnificent fresco paintings, sculptures, and mosaics.
Today, the ancient Herculaneum stands several meters below the current ground level; therefore, compared to that to Pompeii, the visit is somewhat more dramatic and possibly provides a more precise idea of what an average Roman town once was. Indeed, while Pompeii was covered by about 11 meters / 36 feet of ashes and pumices, Herculaneum was mostly buried inside an up to 82-foot-thick layer of mud which “sealed” the entire town and preserved its buildings almost intact, some of them has even retained its original timber roof.
Overview of the excavations; photo: Adam Burt
A typical street of the ancient Herculaneum; photo: Greg Willis
Visiting the Herculaneum archaeological site
The Herculaneum site presents some of the world’s best preserved Roman buildings, including renowned masterpieces of art and architecture such as the Villa of the Papyri (which takes it name from a large number of burnt scrolls found in it), the House of the Genius, the House of the Mosaic Atrium, the House of the Wooden Partition (so-called because it still retains a 2000-year-old folding wooden partition), the House of the Alcove, the House of the Albergo (the town’s largest private building, encompassing a floor area of about 2,000 square meters / 21,500 square feet), the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, the College of the Augustales, and the Central Baths.
Many of such buildings have not been fully excavated so far, as most part of the town, due to the difficulty to dig into a site which lies beneath a 53,000- inhabitant modern settlement.
Although most of the sculptures found in Herculaneum are now on view at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, many houses still retains impressive wall decorations and mosaics, as well as other original decorative elements.
Yet, the most impressive experience the Herculaneum archaeological excavations provides is that of visiting an entire ancient town, many of whose houses are better conserved than some modern buildings abandoned only few decades ago.
College of the Augustales; general view (courtesy of Soprintendenza di Pompei) and detail (photo: Rita Willaert)
House of Neptune and Amphitrite, general view (courtesy of Soprintendenza di Pompei) and detail of a mosaic (photo: Chris Ruggles)
The MAV Virtual Archaeological Museum
Opened to the public in 2008, the MAV (an acronym for Museo Archeologico Virtuale) is an interactive museum adjacent to the excavations.
On a gross floor area of about 5,000 square meters / 53,800 square feet, the museum features 3D reconstructions, 360° video projections, holograms, and interactive installations providing a virtual tours of the ancient Herculaneum and of some of its most representative buildings, as well as an historical reconstruction of the 79 A.D. eruption.
Main facade of the MAV Virtual Archaeological Museum in Ercolano; photo courtesy of MAV / Fondazione C.I.V.E.S
Other images of Herculaneum
House of the Wooden Partition; photo courtesy of Soprindentenza di Pompei
Photo: Sean Munson
Close up view of a fresco painting in the College of the Augustales; photo: Mike Steele
Central Baths; photos by Greg Willis (up) and courtesy of Soprindentenza di Pompei (down)
Cover image by Glenn Brunette