Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian) was a prosperous Roman town that was buried by volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. The remains of this ancient city, which was founded toward the end of the 6th century BC, are located under the modern city of Ercolano in Campania, Italy. Approximately 23 meters (75 feet) of hot volcanic ash covered the buildings and charred some objects that were preserved, such as wooden door beams and even loaves of bread.
How to get there
The Herculaneum excavations and Mount Vesuvius are both close to the Ercolano Scavi train station. Mount Vesuvius is 14.5 kilometers (9 miles) away by bus, and the excavations are only 1 kilometer away (8 blocks) from the train station, which is a 15 minute walk. Both of these interesting places can be visited on the same day if you get an early start.
A train trip from Naples to Ercolano Scavi takes about 1 hour and 10 minutes, or about half an hour from Pompei.
It is better to go to Vesuvius in the morning before the day gets too hot. An office for the bus company Vesuvio Express is located immediately to the left of the steps from the exit of the Ercolano Scavi train station. Buses leave as soon as they fill up, but the wait is seldom more than a few minutes because many tourists are interested in this tour.
The tickets include the bus fare and the entrance to the Vesuvius park. Plan your hike well, because it is a hike! Wear comfortable shoes, a broad-rim hat and sunglasses. Put on some suntan oil, carry a shoulder bag with one liter of water per person, and take some snacks to replenish the salt that you will lose by sweating.
The bus goes from the Ercolano Scavi train station to the entrance of Mount Vesuvius park. Most bus tours give you one hour and a half to complete the excursion, but that is not enough time if you want to go all the way to the top and take some pictures. At a brisk pace, it took me two hours and a half to go to the top and back to the park entrance.
By going to Vesuvius early in the day, you are likely to find another bus from the same company when you are ready to go back to the train station. Otherwise, you will need to take a taxi. You are supposed to use the same bus in which you came, but drivers do not enforce that rule rigorously because many people would be left stranded.
At the entrance to the park there is a small store where you can buy water and snacks. Nearby, there are some portable pay toilets that you can use before or after your climb. There are no toilet facilities along the steep 1.6 kilometer (1 mile) trail or on top of the volcano. At the entrance, you can rent hiking sticks which are really old broom handles, but they can help you keep your balance on difficult spots. The surface of the trail is covered with pea-size volcanic pumice and loose fist-sized rocks. Every step that you take makes a crunching sound as the pebbles grind against each other. You have to be alert to keep from tripping or sliding.
The city of Ercolano can be seen from some points along the trail. The photo above shows the beautiful flowers that thrive on the steep slopes and perfume the mountain air. A denuded gray strip of land between the mountain tops shows one of the paths taken by a pyroclastic flow of hot gas and volcanic ash that destroyed Herculaneum in 79 AD. If mount Vesuvius were to become active again, the modern Ercolano at the foot of the volcano could suffer the same fate and the lives of millions of people would be at risk.
Minor tremors were common in the area around Mount Vesuvius during Roman times. Small earthquakes started on 20 August 79 AD, but they did not cause particular alarm in the population. Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the volcanic eruption from across the Bay of Naples, wrote that the morning of August 24, 79 AD seemed like a normal day until Mount Vesuvius violently exploded. Incandescent stones and a column of ash spewed from the volcano creating a high-altitude mushroom cloud. The eruption started covering the area with volcanic ash and rocks. Lava poured down the volcano's slopes at high speed. Hot pyroclastic flows of hot and dense dust burned buildings and started suffocating the population all the way to the coastline. Herculaneum, which was at the foot of the volcano, was completely covered along with all the people still there. In Pompeii, some inhabitants managed to escape during the first hours of the eruption, but then the volcano started ejecting bigger volumes of ash, and the grey cloud began to collapse in the morning of the second day and completely covered Pompeii.
Vesuvius is considered a dormant volcano because it has long episodes without activity followed by extremely large explosive eruptions like the one that destroyed Herculaneum and Pompeii, or less violent events with small pyroclastic and lava flows like the eruption in 1944.
The rim of the volcano shows many layers that enable scientists to determine the time and magnitude of each eruption. Several solar-powered monitoring stations record the seismic activity as well as changes in the elevation of the ground that may indicate a buildup of magma in the interior of the volcano. Unusual activity may help to predict an eruption.
It is easier to go down the mountain than to climb it. That has something to do with the law of gravity.
You will be tired and hungry after the bus takes you back to the Ercolano Scavi train station. There are several restaurants along the eight blocks to the Herculaneum park. Take a break and eat some pizza or pasta with a cold drink.
After entering through the gate of the Herculaneum excavations, you walk about half a block to the cashier's office to pay the entrance fee. Once inside the park, there is a kiosk where visitors can rent hand-held audio guide devices that look like TV remote controls. The devices provide pre-recorded explanations about the buildings. It would be almost impossible to understand the significance of the structures of Herculaneum without these audio guides.
The road from the entrance gate to the cashier's office provides an elevated view of the excavations. The difference in height from the modern road to the street level of Herculaneum corresponds to the depth of volcanic ash that buried the ancient city. Modern buildings can be seen on the other side of the excavations.
The modern Ercolano is literally built upon the ruins of Herculaneum. The caldera of Mount Vesuvius is only 7 kilometers away (4.3 miles) in a straight line from the town center. The picture above shows a terrace with two archways and four rectangular doorways with wooden beams (lintels) that support the stones across the top of the doors. The lower level has a row of arched entrances with gates. Many skeletons were found under the arches of the lower level.
The streets in Herculaneum had the typical Roman design. They were paved with flat stones and had raised pedestrian sidewalks on both sides.
The stones used for the walls were shaped like cubes and stacked diagonally. In many buildings, the roofs and large portions of the walls are missing. The missing stones were taken away as rubble during the excavations because it was impossible to determine exactly where they belonged.
Against all odds, some organic objects survived the searing temperatures of the volcanic ash. The objects are carbonized, but their shapes are still recognizable in this exhibit at Herculaneum with pictures of a wooden box with a carved design, a loaf of bread and the prow of a ship. Many of the wooden beams that were used above the doorways are still in place. Some are charred, but others were replaced with concrete beams painted to resemble the original beams.
People who sought refuge in the lower level arcades were burned and buried where they sought shelter. The hot coarse pumice ash that covered Herculaneum did not preserve the cavities of the bodies like in Pompeii.
A thermopolium was a place where Romans could get something hot to eat. The counter had several earthenware jars (called dolia) built into the concrete structure. These large jars could be used to store wine, grape husks, olive oil, wheat, and other common grains. These fixed containers were not used for storing perishable foods because the jars would have been hard to clean.
The Terrace of Marcus Nonius Balbus has an arched ramp in the background that leads to a third level. Marcus Nonius Balbus was a patron and benefactor of the city who built and restored many public buildings. A statue of his likeness is set on a marble pedestal across from a rectangular funerary memorial topped by two cupids with upside-down torches as a sign of mourning. The memorial has a long inscription praising his accomplishments. The eruption broke the statue into many pieces. The current statue is a partial restoration made from the fragments found in the volcanic rubble.
The House of the Relief of Telephus is a structure painted in yellow and red ocher hues with an attractive atrium bordered by columns. A large pool faces the columns. The name of the house is derived from the circular relief plaques that hang from the front rafters. This is one of the largest houses in the excavated area. It is thought that Marcus Nonius Balbus was the owner of this house.
The College of the Augustales has some of the best preserved wall paintings and mosaic floors in Herculaneum. The building has impressive high ceilings that indicate its great importance. It is thought that this was a center of the cult of the Emperor Augustus and the headquarters of the Collegium Augustalium and its clergy. The Imperial cult of ancient Rome associated emperors with the divinely sanctioned authority of the Roman State.
In 27 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus became the sole ruler of Rome. Augustus started a religious revival to unify the people after the civil wars. This helped the public to associate Augustus with the well-being of Roman society. He then managed to establish an imperial cult that recognized his divinity through the use of propaganda, religion and politics. The College of the Augustales promulgated the idea of emperor worship as a Roman institution. The tradition of divine rulers lasted until the reign of Constantine in 306 AD.
The corridor between the rooms of the College of the Augustales gives an idea of the spaciousness of the building. The floors feature meticulously crafted mosaic floors with geometric designs, including a swastika, which was a common graphic element since antiquity. The floor around the shallow central pool has a black-and-white checkerboard pattern.