Herculaneum was established by the Greeks at the end of the 6th century BC. The town was named after the Greek hero Herakles. In the 4th century BC Herculaneum came under the domination of the Samnites. The city remained under Samnite control until it became a Roman municipium in 89 BC. I t was a popular place to live because the nearby Bay of Naples and the River Sarnus provided a good transport system for exporting their goods to other parts of the Roman Empire. Herculaneum also had extremely fertile volcanic soil. This soil had been created by the nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius.
On 5 February, AD 62 a serious earthquake hit the Bay of Naples. In Herculaneum and the neighbouring city of Pompeii nearly every building was damaged and many were completely destroyed. The local people believed they must have upset their gods, and those that survived increased their prayers and sacrifices.
The real reason for the earthquake was that steam and gases were building up inside Vesuvius. Unable to find a way through to the surface, an earthquake, rather than a volcanic eruption, took place.
Some people left the area but the vast majority decided to stay. The Roman government gave financial help and within fifteen years the rebuilding of Pompeii and Herculaneum had nearly been completed.
In the summer of AD 79 the people living close to Vesuvius felt several earth tremors. The most serious of these took place on the morning of 24 August. A few hours later the people heard a tremendous explosion. The steam and gases that had been building up for hundreds of years had finally blown out a gigantic hole at the top of Vesuvius. The violence of the eruption blasted rock and ash into the air. So much debris was thrown out that it completely blocked the rays of the sun. Within minutes the whole area was in darkness, the only light coming from the flames shooting from the top of Vesuvius.
The steam that emerged from Vesuvius was extremely hot (an estimated 2000° Fahrenheit). Condensing as it made contact with the atmosphere, the steam turned into heavy rain. This combination of volcanic ash, earth and rain created an avalanche of hot mud. As it flowed down the mountain towards the sea, it destroyed all the houses and villas in its path. At the bottom, four kilometres away, the mud reached Herculaneum. As the mud rose fairly slowly, most people were able to get away before the whole town was completely submerged.
Vesuvius continued throwing out lapilli and poisonous fumes for two days. When the rescue parties finally arrived, they discovered that Herculaneum had completely disappeared. At Pompeii, only the tops of high buildings could be seen. Attempts were made by survivors to reach their valuable possessions but it was not long before they accepted defeat and left to live in another area.
Pliny the Elder was commander of the Misenum naval base and died while trying to rescue people living in the Bay of Naples during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Afterwards, Pliny the Younger told Tacitus what had happened: "As he (Pliny the Elder) was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Cascus, whose house was at the foot of the mountain... She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate... He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated. He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone... Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain... but he was able to bring the ship in (at Stabiae)."
Over the years nature took its course and the pumice stone and the hardened volcanic ash were covered by a layer of earth. Pompeii, was now six metres underground and people forgot about its existence until Count Tuttavilla's workers found it again in 1594. In the years that followed this discovery, rich Italians employed labourers to dig tunnels into the ground so that they could plunder the underground city of its valuable artefacts. It was not until 1860 that an attempt was made to excavate the site in a scientific way.
Giuseppe Fiorelli was put in charge of the operation at Pompeii and his activities dramatically changed attitudes towards archaeology. Fiorelli was mainly concerned with discovering what everyday life was like in an ancient Roman city. Whereas previous archaeologists had spent their time looking for valuable objects, Fiorelli concentrated on excavating the homes and streets of Pompeii.
Fiorelli was aware that after nearly 2,000 years the bodies of the people who had died during the eruption of Vesuvius would have rotted away. However, he developed a technique that enabled him to reconstruct the shapes of people who had died. Fiorelli realised that the lava that suffocated the people of Pompeii would have hardened round the corpse. In time, the corpses would have rotted away. By pouring plaster into cavities which this process left, and then chipping away the lava rock, Fiorelli was able to reconstruct the original shape. As well as reconstructing people and animals, Fiorelli was able to reproduce wooden objects such as tables and chairs that had also rotted away since AD 79.
One of the most interesting aspects of Pompeii is the large number of messages written on the walls. While we have many examples of books and letters written by rich and powerful Romans, this graffiti, scratched on walls by iron nails, gives us a good insight into what ordinary people in Pompeii felt about living in the Roman Empire.
Herculaneum was discovered in 1710 by a peasant digging a well. However, it was not until 1927 that the Italian government decided to pay for archaeologists to work at Herculaneum. The result has been spectacular. The reason for this concerns the way Herculaneum was covered during the volcanic eruption. As the liquid mud rose slowly, it often covered objects without damaging them. For example, eggs were covered without the shells being broken. Also the heat of the mud carbonised the objects and preserved them from decay. Some of the buildings and their contents have survived intact and provide an excellent picture of what life was like in the Roman Empire during the first century AD.
It was not clear at that distance from which mountain the cloud was rising (it was afterwards known to be Vesuvius)... In places it looked white, elsewhere blotched and dirty, according to the amount of soil and ashes it carried with it... My uncle ordered a boat to be made ready, telling me I could come with him if I wished. I replied that I preferred to go on with my studies...As he (Pliny the Elder) was leaving the house he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Cascus, whose house was at the foot of the mountain... He gave orders for the warships to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone... but he was able to bring the ship in (at Stabiae). He embraced Pomponianus, his terrified friend, cheered and encouraged him, and thinking he could calm his fears by showing his own composure, gave orders that he was to be carried to the bathroom. After his bath he dined...Meanwhile on Mount Vesuvius broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points, their bright glare emphasised by the darkness of night. My uncle tried to allay the fears of his companions by repeatedly declaring that these were nothing but bonfires left by the peasants in their terror, or else empty houses on fire in the districts they had abandoned.Then he went to rest and certainly slept, for as he was a stout man his breathing was rather loud and heavy and could be heard by people coming and going outside his door. By this time the courtyard giving access to his room was full of ashes mixed with pumice-stones, so that its level had risen, and if he had stayed in the room any longer he would never have got out... They debated whether to stay indoors or take their chance in the open, for the buildings were now shaking with violent shocks, and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from the foundations. Outside, on the other hand, there was the danger of falling pumice-stones... after comparing the risks they chose the latter... As a protection against falling objects they put pillows on their heads tied down with cloths.Elsewhere there was daylight by this time, but they were still in darkness, blacker and denser than any ordinary night, which they relieved by lighting torches and various kinds of lamps. My uncle decided to go down to the shore and investigate the possibility of any escape by sea, but he found the waves still wild and dangerous... Then the flames and smell of sulphur which gave warning of the approaching fire drove the others to take flight and roused him to stand up. He stood leaning on two slaves and then suddenly collapsed, I imagine because the dense fumes choked his breathing...
When daylight returned on the 26th - two days after the last day he had been seen - his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death.
In the first part of our new travel series devoted to the archaeological sites around the Bay of Naples, we shared some hints and tips as to how you can best prepare for your self-guided tour of Pompeii. In this second part, we look into the fascinating history of Pompeii's "little sister", the town of Herculaneum. Located just 17 kilometres (10 miles) to the north of its more famous neighbour, the archaeological site attracts fewer tourists, but the exceptional preservation of this Roman seaside town and the compactness of its exposed remains might even offer the visitor a more satisfying experience than Pompeii.
In Herculaneum, there are two-storey buildings, wooden furniture, traces of wooden stairways and balconies, luxurious patrician villas and even merchant shops with their original wooden shelves holding amphorae. Its destruction and preservation have made Herculaneum an extraordinary place which genuinely deserves the same renown as its famous neighbour.
A Roman Seaside Resort
Herculaneum was a small walled town located a short distance from the sea, west of Mount Vesuvius. As its name suggests, it was originally dedicated to the Greek god Herakles, who, according to the legend told by Dionysius of Halicarnassus (60 BCE), founded the city after his return from one of his twelve labours. The precise early history of Herculaneum is unclear, but the urban planning suggests that it may have been connected with the Greek colony settlements in the Naples area. According to Strabo (ca. 64 BCE - 24 CE), the city was subsequently inhabited by Oscans, then Etruscans and Pelasgians, and finally by Samnites in the 4th century BCE. The town remained a member of the Samnite league until it became a Roman municipium in 89 BCE during the Social War.
Herculaneum was then transformed into a purely Roman town and prospered as a quiet, secluded seaside resort for wealthy and distinguished Roman citizens who built beachfront residences with panoramic sea views. Unlike Pompeii, which was mostly a commercial city with ca. 12,000 inhabitants, Herculaneum was relatively modest in size. The overall surface enclosed by the walls was approximately 20 hectares (one-quarter of Pompeii), for a population of roughly 4,000 inhabitants. However small, the city is remarkable in terms of its evident wealth. The city had a richer artistic life than Pompeii and had more elaborate private buildings. Many houses of Herculaneum had two or three stories with atria and peristyles and were decorated with finely executed paintings and expensive furnishings.
The Death of Herculaneum
Herculaneum suffered severe damage in the earthquake of 62 CE, and soon after that, like its neighbour Pompeii, was a victim of the Vesuvian eruption of 79 CE. However, the circumstances of the burials of the two cities were very different. As the wind on this fatal day was blowing in the direction of Pompeii, it carried the ash cloud away from Herculaneum which received only a light dusting of pumice stones, minimising the damage to the town's infrastructures. Eventually, however, Herculaneum succumbed to the series of thick pyroclastic waves that thundered down the mountainside and extinguished all life in the city. The temperature of the surge was so intense (nearly 450°C/840°F) that organic materials, such as wood furniture cloth, food, and rolls of papyrus that otherwise perished or burned at Pompeii, instantly carbonised and were discovered remarkably well preserved. The town ended up buried under 20 metres (almost 50 foot) of volcanic material, much more than the 5 metres (16 feet) of ash at Pompeii. As a result, Herculaneum is an ancient town whose ruins are better preserved than those in Pompeii and has different stories to tell.
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Herculaneum was the first of the Vesuvian sites to be rediscovered in 1709 CE when a well-digger stumbled upon the theatre. Soon statues, columns, inscriptions, and bronzes were brought to the surface by tunnelling through the hardened ash. Full-scale excavations began in 1738 CE under the auspices of Charles of Bourbon, the King of Naples, and on December 11 of the same year, an inscription that reads "Theatrum Herculanensi" came to light. The Roman town of Herculaneum was rediscovered. Further tunnelling resulted in exposing more of the buried city and to the north of it, diggers came across the sumptuous Villa of the Papyri, one of the largest and most beautiful private houses in all antiquity. In the villa, some 1800 scrolls were discovered as well as 90 bronze and marble sculptures that can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. Amateur excavations were carried out intermittently until 1875 CE but only revolved around collecting valuable artefacts and antiquities. Systematic excavation work began again in 1927 CE when teams supervised by Amedeo Maiuri ( 1886 – 1963 CE), one of Italy's pre-eminent archaeologists, managed to unearth one-quarter of the town's original area.
Since 2001 CE, the Herculaneum Conservation Project, a joint project led by the Packard Humanities Institute, the British School at Rome, and the Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Naples and Pompeii, has worked to halt the severe decay conditions and save the site. Although two-thirds of Herculaneum remains unexplored, with the forum complex yet to be excavated, the continuous care of the site has resulted in new archaeological discoveries as well as the recent reopenings of the ancient theatre and the House of the Bicentenary. Besides, new techniques may soon enable the hundreds of carbonised papyrus scrolls to be read once more.
Herculaneum is an easy trip from Naples or Sorrento. The local train service around Vesuvius is the Circumvesuviana Line that runs between Naples and Sorrento and has stops near all the major archaeological parks. Exit the Ercolano Scavi station and walk directly downhill on Via IV Novembre for about 5 minutes to the site entrance. By car, use the Ercolano exit from the A3 Autostrada.
A single ticket to get into the Herculaneum excavations at the time of writing costs €13. It is valid for one day. A combined ticket costing €16 includes the entrance to the archaeological area and an underground visit to the Ancient Theatre of Herculaneum. However, the guided tours of the theatre are only available on Sundays at 10:00 (in English), 11:00 (in Italian) and 12:00 (in English) so it is suggested to purchase your ticket online here to ensure access. The cumulative ticket allows one entrance to the Ancient Theatre and one entrance to the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum within a week. When buying your ticket at the Park ticket office, pick up a map and the small pocket guide to the sites. You can also download your PDF guides in advance of your trip (see here).
Two passes also exist, the Herculaneum Vesuvius Card (official site) and the Campania Arte Card (official site). The Herculaneum Vesuvius Card is a three-day pass at the price of €16 that allows visitors to discover all the cultural and natural assets of Ercolano. The Card includes one entry to each of the following sites: Archaeological Park of Herculaneum, Virtual Archaeological Museum of Herculaneum, Villa Campolieto, Great Cone of Vesuvius.
As opposed to Pompeii, it is possible to visit all of Herculaneum in just a few hours. We suggest spending at least 2-3 hours exploring the site. There is also a museum (www.museomav.com) located on via IV Novembre, offering virtual reconstructions of Herculaneum and Pompeii, with a bookshop and exhibition spaces. Another museum, known as the Antiquarium, is located a few steps away from the archaeological park and is hosting a permanent exhibition (SplendOri: Luxury in the Ornaments of Herculaneum) of jewellery and other precious objects from the site.
Herculaneum is much easier to explore than Pompeii due to the smaller size and its straightforward layout, covering a small grid of numbered streets. The site is divided into three parallel streets running north-south (Cardo III, IV, and V) which have upper and lower segments (superiore and inferiore). These are intersected by two main streets running east-west and called the Decumano Inferiore and the Decumano Massimo. For the visitor to the site, the long entrance pathway curving over the southern end of the site offers fine views of the Roman town with Mt. Vesuvius lying in the background. From here one can look directly across the seafront houses and in particular the House of the Deer whose owners had developed gardens, terraces, and porticoes to take full advantage of Herculaneum's panoramic sea view.
Looking directly below the houses, are twelve vaulted rooms which once opened onto the beach. They may have served as boat sheds, but these rooms became the final resting place of hundreds of residents of Herculaneum. It was here that the skeletons of approximately 300 people were found, along with some of their valuables. Trying to escape from the horrible destruction of their town, they were killed instantly by the intense heat of the eruption.
Further to the right, a newly installed footbridge brings you directly on to Cardo III, one of the main north-south streets. On the left is the House of Argus with its porticoed garden opening onto a triclicium (dining room) and other residential rooms. This noble house was originally entered from Cardo II (yet to be unearthed). Across Cardo III on the left is the House of the Skeleton. This modest house derives its name from the discovery of a human skeleton in a room in 1831 CE. It features a nymphaeum consisting of two rectangular basins with a decorative rear wall in inlaid limestone. Above the nymphaeum is a decorative frieze composed of seven panels, of which only three originals remain.
At the north-western corner of Cardo III Superiore lies the so-called College of the Augustales whose interiors were richly decorated with wall-paintings featuring well known mythological figures. The building has often been associated with the presence of the imperial cult in Herculaneum, but it might just as well be a meeting place for the town council, the local Curia or Senate House. The interior is composed of one large room with a small shrine (sacellum) decorated entirely with 'fourth style' frescoes. The left wall has Hercules standing next to Juno and Minerva, and the other one shows Hercules and Achelous, the god of all water and the rivers of the world, kidnapping Deianira. A marble inscription now placed on the wall records that two brothers, Aulus Lucius Proculus and Aulus Lucius Iulianus, gave a dinner to the decuriones and the augustales on the occasion of a dedication of a statue or an altar to the divine Augustus.
The decumanus maximus (Decumano Massimo) runs immediately to the right of the so-called College of the Augustales. The town's main east-west street was lined with shops, including one called Ad Cucumas. Look for the wall painting advertising the drinks sold there. It shows four wine jugs of different colours, each labelled with a different price per weight.
Lucky visitors will now have the opportunity to visit the House of the Bicentenary which had been closed to the public for restoration and repair since 1983 CE. The 600-square-metre (6,400-square-feet) property is perhaps the most beautiful noble house so far excavated in Herculaneum, with stunning mosaics and priceless wall paintings with mythological scenes. Located on the decumanus maximus between shops, this three-story house belonged to Gaius Petronius Stephanus and his wife Calatonia Themis.
Turning back towards the Ad Cucumas shop, the next street to the left brings the visitors to Cardo IV which contains many of the most visited houses. The first is the House of the Black Hall, one of Herculaneum's most luxurious mansions. The house has a monumental entrance which still retains the carbonised remains of its frame and architrave. The house follows the sequence vestibule, atrium, tablinum, peristyle. Some of its rooms are painted in a sophisticated 'fourth style' consisting of black central panels with architectural motifs.
On the other side of Cardo IV Superiore is the House of the Beautiful Courtyard with its interior courtyard and stairway to an upper floor. The adjacent House of Neptune and Amphitrite draws the visitor's attention due to the lavish decoration of its summer triclinium (open-air dining area) which gives the house its modern name. Adorning the east wall of the room is a mosaic showing the god Neptune and his sea-nymph wife Amphitrite. The triclinium also features a nymphaeum covered with a glass paste mosaic and shells.
At the bottom corner of Cardo IV Superiore is the Samnite House, one of the oldest dwellings in the town, dating from the 2nd century BCE. Some of its original frescoes are in the 'first style', imitating polychrome marble. Here the visitor should raise his eyes to the remarkable gallery with Ionic columns and latticework fences made of stucco on three sides.
Directly on the other side are the Central Baths which occupy the complete width of the block between Cardo III and Cardo IV. They were laid out around the beginning of the 1st century CE and were divided into separate (larger) men's and (smaller) women facilities, each with their sequence of changing room (apodyterium), warm room (tepidarium) and hot room (caldarium). The baths were decorated with 'fourth style' frescoes, had fine stuccoed ceilings while the floors were paved with elegant marine mosaics.
A little further downhill on Cardo IV Inferiore is the House of the Wooden Screen, famous for its wonderfully well-preserved wooden partition, separating the atrium from the tablinum (reception room). The adjacent Trellis House has been restored to highlight its timber-framed facade and balcony which consisted of vertical and horizontal wooden panels filled with concrete and rubble. The technique was called opus craticium and was a low-cost one considered not to be very solid and easily subject to fire. The house contained perfectly preserved carbonised furniture, including beds and cupboards.
Near the bottom end of Cardo IV is the House of the Mosaic Atrium with its exquisite geometric black-and-white mosaic decorating the whole floor of the atrium. Unfortunately, the house is currently closed, but the atrium is visible from the street.
The eastern end of the site is almost completely taken up by the partially excavated Palaestra, a spacious gymnasium and exercise area, entered from Cardo V through a large vestibule. Built during the Augustan period (27 BCE - 14 CE), this gigantic building complex was surrounded by a portico of fluted Corinthian columns on three sides and a cryptoporticus on the north side to support the terrace above. Several stores, built against the monumental edifice, supplied the needs of the public who frequented the Palaestra, including a bakery (pistrinum). Walking downhill towards Cardo V Inferiore at the junction with the Decumano Inferiore are the remains of a thermopolium (cook-shop) that sold food and drink.
Further downhill, near the seafront, is an imposing noble house. Constructed around a central courtyard, the two-storey House of the Deer contains beautiful 'fourth style' paintings with still-lifes and various architectural landscapes. The terrace garden which commanded magnificent views over the Bay of Naples has copies of two marble groups of deer attacked by dogs, the originals of which were found in the garden. Archaeologists believe that the wealthy merchant Q. Granius Verus owned the house since his stamp was discovered on a loaf of bread unearthed in the house and amazingly preserved by the volcanic ash.
On the other side of the same street is the House of the Relief of Telephus, one of the largest houses in Herculaneum covering about 1,800 sq. m (20,000 sq. feet). Its atrium is in the 'third style' with yellow panels and is fitted up with copies of marble discs called oscilla, suspended between the columns.
Lying immediately south of the House of the Relief of Telephus is the Suburban District, the ancient waterfront area. It is reached via the Marina Gate at the southern end of Cardo V and accessed by a narrow ramp. The central feature of the Suburban District is the Terrace of Marcus Nonius Balbus, the town's most prominent figure during the Augustan period. A funerary altar was erected here on the spot where his body was cremated. A cuirassed statue of Balbus was placed on the marble base behind the altar by his freedman Marcus Nonius Volusianus. A native of Nuceria, Balbus was praetor (magistrate) and governor of the provinces of Crete and Cyrenaica under Augustus. During his lifetime, he embellished the town with civic monuments and public facilities. His generosity to Herculaneum is preserved in inscriptions, and at least ten statues of him were erected in his honour.
To the east of the terrace lie the Suburban Baths, one of the best-preserved Roman bath complexes in existence, with mosaic and marble floors, stuccoed walls, ceiling decoration, and statues. Unfortunately, the building is rarely accessible to visitors. To the west of the terrace is the Sacred Area which incorporates two shrines, the first dedicated to Venus, the second dedicated to the three gods Vulcan, Neptune, Mercury and the goddess Minerva as evidenced by the reliefs.
Do not miss the opportunity to visit the ancient theatre of Herculaneum, located outside of the archaeological park along Corso Resina. The monument is still accessible today through a series of tunnels made in the Bourbon age, going down 20 metres below the volcanic material. Two staircases lead to a corridor whose walls are covered by graffiti left over the centuries by visitors. The theatre was built of stone in the Augustan period and could hold about 2500 spectators. It was decorated with many types of marble, large bronze statues and equestrian statues which are now at the Naples Archaeological Museum. Herculaneum's underground theatre is opened every Sunday morning with three public tours for groups of 10 people maximum.
Before visiting Herculaneum, be sure to watch the excellent BBC documentary The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum presented by Prof. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, who has been heading the Herculaneum Conservation Project. Wallace-Hadrill's 2011 book Herculaneum: Past and Future also offers a fresh overview of Herculaneum's urban history and development.
The Ancient Scrolls Of Herculaneum Are Finally Revealing Their Secrets
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD not only covered Pompeii but also did serious damage to the coastal town of Herculaneum located between Naples and Pompeii.
While most of the inhabitants of Pompeii were choked to death from falling ash and volcanic rocks spewed from the mountain, Herculaneum was first hit with the searing heat of the pyroclastic flow – enough heat to turn the occupants’ brains into glass.
Unfortunately, the believed estate of Lucius Calpurnius Piso, the father in law of Julius Caesar, was the Villa of the Papyri which contained a library of over one thousand and eight hundred papyrus scrolls that were turned into blackened, carbonized lumps that are finally being translated because of the breakthrough technology of multispectral imaging.
NAPLES, ITALY – JUNE 27: Papyri Herculaneum are seen in the National Library of Naples, on June 27, 2019 in Naples, Italy. Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
According to herculaneum.ox.ac.uk, the scrolls are the most extensive surviving library of the Greco-Roman era and were discovered by Karl Weber who was in charge of the first legal excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum beginning in 1749.
Although he was one of the first to take the approach of going slowly and preserving as much as possible, attempts at unrolling the papyri were a disaster. The scrolls were cut vertically losing much of the fabric and attempts to pry the pages apart to read the underlying information destroyed more than what was gained.
Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Researchers at the University of Kentucky led by Professor Brent Seales, director of the Center for Visualization & Virtual Environments along with Diamond Light Source from the United Kingdom bombarded the scrolls with high energy X-rays and the data was analyzed by a computer program written by Dr. Seales to recognize the inks used when the scrolls were created.
According to iflscience, Dr. Seales remarked, “First, we will immediately see the internal structure of the scrolls in more definition than has ever been possible and we need that level of detail to ferret out the highly compressed layers on which the text sits.
The National Library of Naples (Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli) houses the Herculaneum Papyri, a library of papyrus scrolls carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the first century AD. The papyri contain a number of Greek philosophical texts and represent the only library that survives from Greco-Roman antiquity. Many of the scrolls are too fragile to physically unroll and researchers have turned to digital-imaging techniques to reveal the contents of the papyri. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)
The machine-learning tool we are developing will amplify that ink signal by training a computer algorithm to recognize it – pixel by pixel – from photographs of opened fragments that show exactly where the ink is – voxel by voxel – in the corresponding tomographic data of the fragment.”
Smithsonianmag.com tells us that Dr. Seales attempted to gain access to the scrolls for over thirteen years as many of the libraries that now hold the scrolls including the library in Naples, Italy refused him access.
The Institut de France, the owner of six scrolls, finally allowed Dr. Seales to study three small fragments from the several scrolls that had been ruined during attempts to unroll them.
After Dr. Seals was able to determine that small amounts of lead were present in the ink of some of the scrolls, the Institut de France granted him access to two intact scrolls. After being scanned by a high resolution CT scanner the ink was not revealed as the researchers hoped it would.
After spending two years at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris he was able to create the algorithms to interpret the baffling data generated by the CT scanner and X-ray phase-contrast tomography.
Armed with his new technology and an Artec Space Spider handheld scanner Dr. Seales went to the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University to scan a fragment of a scroll and after several months of research back in Kentucky Dr. Seales returned to the UK and enlisted the help of Diamond Light Source’s particle accelerator.
He was finally able to prove to a crowded conference room at Oxford that his method worked when he was able to present a 3D image that revealed the separate pages that had previously been deemed impossible to separate.
Because Dr. Seales’ amazing work has been accepted by many researchers of antiquated writings, there are some who are anxious to use the technology on the thousands of manuscripts that have been unable to be examined due to their frail state.
Gregory Heyworth, a medievalist at the University of Rochester in New York claimed, “We’d change the canon. I think the next generation is going to have a very different picture of antiquity.”
Visiting The Ruins of Herculaneum
Herculaneum is named for the mythical Greek god, Hercules, who, according the legend told by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, founded the city in 1243 BC. Historic analysis, however, suggests that the city was founded by the Oscans or the Etruscans in the 7th century BC , conquered by the Samnites in the 5th century BC. In 90 BC the city was dominated by Rome and transformed into a municipium. In the final years of the Roman Republic, Herculaneum reached the height of its splendor thanks to its coastal location, clean air, and mild climate, making it a popular resort town for many of Rome's patrician families. The city was vibrant and densely populated when the earthquake struck in 62 AD, causing serious damage work to rebuild the city was still going on when the tragic eruption of Mount Vesuvius happened in 79 AD.
The cloud of toxic gases from the eruption wiped out the inhabitants, while the entire city was literally sealed under a flow of ash and volcanic rock 16 meters deep that solidifiedi, preserving almost perfectly intact organic remains like fabric, food, vegetation, and wooden structures.
The discovery of the ruins at Herculaneum was a complete accident: while a well was being dug in 1707 by order of Emmanuel Maurice, Prince of Lorraine, a number of marble fragments and statues that once decorated the ancient theater of Herculaneum were unearthed. In 1738, work began again under Charles III of Bourbon led by the Spanish military engineer De Alcubierre. In 1755, after a number of important discoveries were made, the Accademia Ercolanense was established, and was active until 1792. Excavations were suspended a number of times over the years until 1927, when the site began to explored in a more systematic way. Important artifacts were unearthed in the 1980s, along with sites like the Temple of Venus, the baths, and the ancient Greek port where the inhabitants tried to find refuge in 79 AD. The site has been home to intense excavation since 2000, especially around the Villa of the Papyrus and the library.
Mount Vesuvius erupts
On August 24, after centuries of dormancy, Mount Vesuvius erupts in southern Italy, devastating the prosperous Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and killing thousands. The cities, buried under a thick layer of volcanic material and mud, were never rebuilt and largely forgotten in the course of history. In the 18th century, Pompeii and Herculaneum were rediscovered and excavated, providing an unprecedented archaeological record of the everyday life of an ancient civilization, startlingly preserved in sudden death.
The ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum thrived near the base of Mount Vesuvius at the Bay of Naples. In the time of the early Roman Empire, 20,000 people lived in Pompeii, including merchants, manufacturers, and farmers who exploited the rich soil of the region with numerous vineyards and orchards. None suspected that the black fertile earth was the legacy of earlier eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Herculaneum was a city of 5,000 and a favorite summer destination for rich Romans. Named for the mythic hero Hercules, Herculaneum housed opulent villas and grand Roman baths. Gambling artifacts found in Herculaneum and a brothel unearthed in Pompeii attest to the decadent nature of the cities. There were smaller resort communities in the area as well, such as the quiet little town of Stabiae.
At noon on August 24, 79 A.D., this pleasure and prosperity came to an end when the peak of Mount Vesuvius exploded, propelling a 10-mile mushroom cloud of ash and pumice into the stratosphere. For the next 12 hours, volcanic ash and a hail of pumice stones up to 3 inches in diameter showered Pompeii, forcing the city’s occupants to flee in terror. Some 2,000 people stayed in Pompeii, holed up in cellars or stone structures, hoping to wait out the eruption.
A westerly wind protected Herculaneum from the initial stage of the eruption, but then a giant cloud of hot ash and gas surged down the western flank of Vesuvius, engulfing the city and burning or asphyxiating all who remained. This lethal cloud was followed by a flood of volcanic mud and rock, burying the city.
The people who remained in Pompeii were killed on the morning of August 25 when a cloud of toxic gas poured into the city, suffocating all that remained. A flow of rock and ash followed, collapsing roofs and walls and burying the dead.
Much of what we know about the eruption comes from an account by Pliny the Younger, who was staying west along the Bay of Naples when Vesuvius exploded. In two letters to the historian Tacitus, he told of how “people covered their heads with pillows, the only defense against a shower of stones,” and of how 𠇊 dark and horrible cloud charged with combustible matter suddenly broke and set forth. Some bewailed their own fate. Others prayed to die.” Pliny, only 17 at the time, escaped the catastrophe and later became a noted Roman writer and administrator. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, was less lucky. Pliny the Elder, a celebrated naturalist, at the time of the eruption was the commander of the Roman fleet in the Bay of Naples. After Vesuvius exploded, he took his boats across the bay to Stabiae, to investigate the eruption and reassure terrified citizens. After going ashore, he was overcome by toxic gas and died.
According to Pliny the Younger’s account, the eruption lasted 18 hours. Pompeii was buried under 14 to 17 feet of ash and pumice, and the nearby seacoast was drastically changed. Herculaneum was buried under more than 60 feet of mud and volcanic material. Some residents of Pompeii later returned to dig out their destroyed homes and salvage their valuables, but many treasures were left and then forgotten.
A Poorly Preserved Site Becomes An Excellence Textbook Case
Herculaneum was an ancient coastal settlement that is today situated within the commune of Ercolano, Campania, Italy. According to Strabo's Geography the town had ancient Greek origins and it was always associated with the hero Heracles ( Hercules), who was worshiped not only as the spiritual founder of the town but also as the overlord of Mount Vesuvius.
Like the nearby city of Pompeii, Herculaneum was also destroyed and buried under thick black volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. And it was also well-preserved beneath deep layers of ash.
According to The New York Times in 2013, “Herculaneum has gone from one of the worst preserved UNESCO sites at risk of being put on the endangered list to becoming a textbook case of successful archaeological conservation.”
Now, a new stage of planned archaeological excavations is about to start, with the aim of restoring the Antica-Spiaggia-area Herculaneum beach.
Boathouses on Herculaneum beach, where 300 skeletons were found. These unfortunate victims were about to be evacuated but never made it out. (Matthias Holländer / Public domain )
The House of Neptune and Amphitrite in the ruins of Herculaneum.
In 79 CE, Pliny the Younger, seventeen years old at the time, watched Mount Vesuvius erupt from the safety of his home at the opposite end of the Bay of Naples.
“I cannot give you a more exact description,” he wrote in a letter to the historian Tacitus, “than by likening it to that of a pine-tree, for it shot up to a great height in the form of a very tall trunk, which spread itself out at the top into a sort of branches.”
Pliny’s letter is the only surviving eyewitness account of the volcanic event that engulfed the Roman town of Herculaneum in waves of gas and rock, permanently suspending its citizens, markets, streets, and homes in place. A library, too, was sealed in the volcanic ash.
Excavations at Herculaneum in the 1750s uncovered a villa, which might have belonged to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. It contained 1,800 papyrus scrolls.
With only a small portion of the ancient world’s written output surviving into the modern era, scholars were giddy about the chance to read and study previously unknown texts and manuscripts lost to time. But the hot gases and more than eighty feet of volcanic rock of Vesuvius had sucked the moisture out of the papyrus, compacting the pages and turning the scrolls into cylinders of carbon.
For more than two centuries, scholars have tried in various ways to open and read these carbonized scrolls, yielding only tantalizing glimpses of philosophical and literary texts. Attempts to separate the compacted layers damaged some of the the scrolls. Hundreds more remain unread, too fragile to handle.
The mysteries of the scrolls won’t remain locked for much longer if Brent Seales, a professor of computer science at the University of Kentucky, has his way. With support from NEH, Seales and his team of classicists, curators, and linguists are using CT scans paired with virtual unwrapping software and machine-learning tools to see inside the scrolls without damaging them. This method allows Seales’s team to differentiate between the compacted layers of the scrolls and make the text discernible—no easy feat when the ink itself contains traces of carbon.
The end result will be digital-born versions of the scrolls that scholars can study. The open-source software developed by Seales will also be available to other scholars working on damaged manuscripts.
Seales’s journey into the world of manuscripts began in 1995, when he was asked to work on the only extant copy of Beowulf, which had been damaged by fire. Using spectral imaging, Seales and his team were able to make the charred text visible. In 2015, Seales used his “virtual unwrapping” technique to read a burned scroll found in En Gedi, Israel. The recovered text was identified as a two-thousand-year-old copy of the Book of Leviticus in Hebrew, a landmark discovery in biblical archaeology. Seales’s work on the Herculaneum scrolls builds on these earlier projects, while also pioneering new technical and methodological approaches.
Seales regards unlocking the Herculaneum scrolls as the “moonshot” of his career. “It will be hard for me not to be enthusiastic about it until either we’ve done it or have shown it is impossible,” he has said.
The Excavation of Herculaneum Today
But Herculaneum continues to reveal its secrets. In the 1970s, the structurally impressive cliffside suburban baths were excavated. Investigations then progressed to the harbour. A lack of bodies in Herculaneum had long led to speculation that the residents had escaped. In 1981, the truth was revealed, when the boat sheds along the shore were discovered to contain the bodies of many of Herculaneum’s citizens, instantaneously killed by the high temperatures of the pyroclastic surge which destroyed the town.
Today, the excavation of Herculaneum continues. Significant works are in progress along the shoreline and at the nearby Villa of the Papyri, as well as to the north-west of the town.
“Pyroclastic flows vary in temperature. You can have cold flows and you can have supercharged, exceptionally hot flows. … If it’s cold, you’d suffocate because it’s very fluid — the ash gets in your throat and, effectively, you drowned. Or, if they’re very, very hot, you become incinerated in the blink of an eye.” — Mark Davies, volcanologist
On August 24th, A.D. 79, the people of Herculaneum, a prosperous seaside town in Italy’s Bay of Naples, watched in horror as Mount Vesuvius erupted, hurling a boiling, churning column of gas and ash 10 miles high into the sky. They saw the wind carry the deadly cloud toward the neighboring city of Pompeii, where the hapless citizens suffered a slow and torturous death in the poisonous detritus. It was only a matter of time before Vesuvius would unleash its fury on Herculaneum, killing its citizens in an even more spectacular and gruesome way.
In recent years, the fabled, largely forgotten city of Herculaneum has been re-discovered and, today, archaeologists are scrambling to study and save the fragile site. The film paints a stunning picture of what life was like in the ancient town, and how people ultimately met their horrific deaths there.
“Ironically, Herculaneum’s violent end ensured that the town was suspended in time, and it remains intact 2,000 years later,” said Jared Lipworth, executive producer of SECRETS OF THE DEAD. “Unlike Pompeii — whose fate was a slow burial by ash and pumice — Herculaneum was engulfed by superheated pyroclastic flows of molten rock, mud and gas that actually caused people’s heads to explode. Those flows transformed the living, breathing city of Herculaneum into an incredible time capsule that is even better preserved than Pompeii.”
SECRETS OF THE DEAD looks at Herculaneum, past and present, from every conceivable angle — via aerial views of the town and through the eyes of scientists as they examine such critical minutiae as fig seeds from some of the last meals consumed there before the volcano erupted. Actual footage of erupting volcanoes — including the most recent eruption of Vesuvius in 1944 and pyroclastic flows from the Caribbean island of Montserrat in the 1990s — helps illustrate the power and destructiveness of these cataclysmic events.
The investigation is led by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of The Herculaneum Conservation Project, who knows better than most people that, occasionally, walls do talk. In some parts of Herculaneum, the ancient layers of pyroclastic flows descend as deep as 80 feet, forming walls that hold surprising secrets.
The challenges Professor Wallace-Hadrill and his team face are many, including the damage wrought by 18th-century Bourbon treasure hunters, who robbed the site of beautiful mosaic frescos, as well as other precious art and artifacts. But because only a fraction of Herculaneum has been disturbed, the dense lava walls are still giving up other invaluable objects that speak volumes about life there before the disaster.
The discovery of one such object is among many exciting moments as cameras follow the team on a very different kind of treasure hunt. The head of a statue, believed to be of an Amazon warrior woman, is carefully excavated and diligently conserved by experts. The paint is still visible — a rarity in Roman-era statues. Beyond its intrinsic value, the painted head is priceless for what it can reveal about the artistic techniques of the time.
“Here we have a fantastic insight into the big mystery of what a colored statue head was like,” exclaims Professor Wallace-Hadrill, as he inspects the extraordinary find. “You can see how wonderfully delicate the paintwork is. And you can see how it concentrates around the area of the eye. It brings it to life, because for the Ancients, the life resides in the eye — you can see the soul through the eye.”
Unlike Pompeii and virtually every other Roman-era site, Herculaneum boasts a trove of preserved organic material. Delicate household objects examined in the program — from wooden chests and cupboards to textiles and foodstuffs — connect us to daily life in the Roman world, and remind us that the victims of Vesuvius were mundanely and poignantly real.
This point is driven home in one of the most extraordinary moments of the film, when we discover the gruesome truth about Herculaneum’s central mystery: What really happened to its inhabitants when their city was swallowed up by Vesuvius?
The shocking answer is found in a series of concrete arcades situated at what was once Herculaneum’s original shoreline along the Mediterranean. Dozens of skeletons lie huddled together under the sturdy arches where people gathered most likely in the vain hope of escaping by boat. In one example, a mother bends protectively over her child, as if trying to offer comfort. Beneath her are the tiny bones of a fetus, indicating that she was seven months pregnant. The skeletons show signs of thermal shock from temperatures that were close to one thousand degrees Fahrenheit. Muscles contracted, contorting the bodies, and skin vaporized. Brains boiled and skulls exploded.
Using information and insights gleaned from the site of the doomed city, volcanologists and other experts continually monitor Vesuvius, still an active volcano, for signs of unrest. Many believe that the six million residents who populate the area today, like their ancestors in ancient Herculaneum and Pompeii, are sitting on a time bomb.
Herculaneum Uncovered includes terrifying, rare footage of the last time Vesuvius erupted. While the force unleashed by Vesuvius in 1944 was significantly less powerful than that of the A.D. 79 eruption, the destruction was massive. But, as Professor Wallace-Hadrill reminds us, the human memory is short.
“People have been building right under Vesuvius, right through history – not just the Romans, but millennia before, we know that humans have lived here,” he says. “Vesuvius only erupts very rarely, and people just can’t remember the last time it erupted.”
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD and the destruction of Pompeii
The day had started like any other in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Shops were open, markets were busy and citizens were gathering in the forum to discuss politics and business. Although an earthquake had rocked the city some 17 years earlier, the ever-growing population had no cause for concern as they went about their daily lives. Investment money had led to great renovation works across the city, which had now grown quite prosperous. The future looked bright for this bustling Roman metropolis.
Never in their darkest nightmares could the 15,000 citizens of Pompeii predict the cruel hand that fate was about to deal their beloved city that day. Situated in the Bay of Naples in the Campania region of Italy, the people of this region lived in the shadow of a sleeping giant, Mount Vesuvius. The Romans knew it was a volcano but they were completely ignorant to the extent of its destructive power. They also fatally believed it was extinct. The catastrophic events of 24 August 79 AD would demonstrate how wrong that belief was.
For four days before that fateful date, the surrounding populations had felt small earthquakes, which had increased in frequency as the days went on. The warning signs were there but the Romans in this region had become accustomed to such seismic activity. According to Pliny the Younger, the only eyewitness to leave behind a surviving written document of the events, such minor earth tremors were frequent in Campania. On this occasion, however, they represented something far more sinister the sleeping giant was rousing.
Every second one and half million tons of volcanic debris spewed into the atmosphere.
The pressure exerted by the molten rock underneath the volcano was increasing to such a point it would soon have nowhere to go but up. At 1 pm on 24 August, Mount Vesuvius announced its awakening with a violent eruption.
An enormous dark cloud shrouded the blue sky above the volcano. The column of volcanic pumice, hot gasses and ash, pushed upwards of 9 miles into the atmosphere and spread across the skyline like black ink on blotting paper. Pliny described its general appearance as ‘like an umbrella pine tree, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches.'
Every second one and half million tons of volcanic debris spewed into the atmosphere, regurgitated from the fiery depths of the raging giant. That day, Mount Vesuvius released over 100,000 times the thermal energy of the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during WWII.
It didn't take long for the dark cloud to travel the five-mile distance to Pompeii. The city soon found itself enveloped in darkness as molten rock, pumice stone and hot ash began to fall from the sky. Some people fled towards the sea, others into the nearby countryside. Many decided to huddle inside their homes in the vain hope of riding out the storm. The first deaths in Pompeii were recorded at this stage as the flat roofs of buildings and houses began to collapse under the weight of the ash and volcanic debris, crushing those unfortunate souls who dwelled within their walls. Rocks falling from the sky claimed the lives of others. Gradually the city became buried under ash and debris to a depth of almost 10m.
Although located some 3 miles closer to Mount Vesuvius than Pompeii, the small wealthy seaside town of Herculaneum managed to dodge the majority of the ash and pumice fall from the first eruption, thanks to prevailing winds blowing the volcanic cloud southeast towards Pompeii and the surrounding area. The apocalyptic scene unfolding in front of their eyes, however, was enough to convince the majority of the citizens of Herculaneum to flee from their city. They were the wise ones, as Mount Vesuvius was far from done yet.
Around 1 am, twelve hours after the volcano had roared into life, the eruption moved into its second and most lethal phase. The column of debris and gas now reached some 20 miles high and began to weaken under its own weight. In the early hours of August 25th, the column collapsed as the gasses densified and could no longer support their solid contents. The destructive cloud began to race down the sides of the volcano. This was the first of six pyroclastic surges that would fall from Mount Vesuvius that day.
It raced towards the town of Herculaneum at speeds over 100mph. Those unfortunate to be swept up in its wake died instantly of heat exposure, as temperatures within the surge soared to around 250°C. For years historians believed that Herculaneum was mostly abandoned by the time the surges came, due to the low number of skeletal remains discovered in the town. However, in the 1980s up to 400 well-preserved skeletons were discovered in boathouses near the seawall of the town, demonstrating that not everyone had decided to evacuate. When it was over, Herculaneum was buried under 75ft of volcanic material.
It was certain death in a fraction of a second for every living thing that resided in Pompeii at that time
As the sun began to rise on the second day of the eruption, the ashfall on Pompeii began to ease. Citizens within the city limits believed it was all over and some of those who had fled even began to return to their homes to gather what was left of their possessions. If volcanic eruptions had an eye of the storm, this was it. A short-lived and deceptive period of calm before Mount Vesuvius launched its fourth pyroclastic surge.
It came around 7:30 am and crashed into Pompeii at over 200 mph with temperatures now exceeding 300°C. It was certain death in a fraction of a second for every living thing that resided in Pompeii at that time. Even those that had fled to the countryside were not guaranteed their safety, as the surges pushed deep into the surrounding landscape. A fifth surge buried Pompeii for good.
Pliny the Younger had been staying in Misenum, on the other side of the Bay of Naples, some 18 miles from the volcano. Even at this distance, the citizens of Misenum felt the effects of the eruption with ash falling heavily on the Roman port. Pliny and his mother, along with many others, initially decided to stay put and watch the events unfold across the bay. ‘On the other side, a black and dreadful cloud, broken with rapid, zigzag flashes, revealed behind it variously shaped masses of flame: these last were like sheet-lightning, but much larger… soon afterwards, the cloud began to descend, and cover the sea.'
Earlier in the day, Pliny's uncle known as Pliny the Elder had bravely set sail to help those trapped closer to the volcano. His body was found a couple of days later, his cause of death most likely from a heart attack.
Pliny the Younger described witnessing the waters around the bay receding, identifying what was most likely a mild tsunami caused by the eruptions. Eventually, the 17-year-old Pliny along with his mother set forth into the countryside with many others. He describes people placing pillows over their heads to protect themselves from falling objects.
‘You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men', Pliny recalled. ‘People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore…I admit that I derived some poor consolation in my mortal lot from the belief that the whole world was dying with me and I with it.'
By the end of the second day, the sun managed to finally peek through the haze and reach the charred landscape below, lifting the souls of those still alive. Mount Vesuvius was finally at rest again.
Although exact numbers cannot be known, estimates place the death toll caused by the eruption in the region of 13,000-16,000, making it one of the most lethal volcanic events in history.
Herculaneum and Pompeii were never rebuilt again. They lay buried under ash, dust and rock, forever preserved in underground time capsules. In the immediate aftermath, Roman looters dug into Pompeii to steal whatever valuables they could. In the centuries that followed, the knowledge of where Herculaneum and Pompeii once lay became lost. They would remain forgotten until their accidental rediscoveries in the 18th century.
During 19th century excavations, Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli realised that the voids he was discovering in the layers of ash at Pompeii were spaces left behind by decomposed human bodies. He invented the technique of injecting plaster into them to bring to life in vivid detail the people of Pompeii in their final desperate moments.
Over a thousand of these casts have been made, bodies frozen in gruesome suspended animation. Pompeii and Herculaneum are still one of the most fascinating archaeological places in the world and are both listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Every year millions of people visit the once buried Pompeii, making it one of Italy's most popular and famous tourist attractions, providing generation after generation a unique insight into Roman daily life.