Herculaneum: Beginning at the End

40.8°N, 14.34°E

Dispatch: Herculaneum

The entrance to the Pompeii-lite site of Herculaneum is through an underground tunnel that leads to a bridge. A dozen arches open to what was the sea in 79 AD when Mt. Vesuvius blew pyroclastic flows onto the Roman town. The arches some say were once ancient boathouses. The map calls them fornici which translates to brothel in Latin. Now they are neither boathouses nor brothels, but a mausoleum for skeletons, a desperate final burial not discovered until 1980.

The four thousand Herculaneum residents were thought to have fled the eruption because unlike Pompeii, very few human remains were found among the ruins. The three hundred bodies found in the boat houses probably died instantly from the 900°F air that descended from the atomic size cloud that reigned down on their city.

A rope blocks the walkway in front of arches and only by yoga-like postures and a significant zoom lense is a visitor able to see the skeletons. From there the pathway leads up a staircase to a plaza where a civic leader, or parts of him, sit on a plinth in the center of a plaza. What to make of these jarring leaps from graveyard to history reborn? It was difficult as all the “petit guides” in English were finito and we made do with a French version. Such is the ying and yang of touring Italy.

Do you begin at the end or end at the beginning? At Herculaneum be prepared to leap back and forth and twirl around to circle back. Friends Angela and Dan organized a car for the day and asked us to join them. Herculaneum is a terrific alternative to Pompeii which in June is hot and packed with tour groups. Herculaneum seems a little less hot, less crowded and rich with villas, houses and decoration. Even some wooden furniture survived because little ash and no lava flow came this way.The entire site is about five stories below current street level.

Herculeanum was a seaside resort town in its day with glorious villas. Because it suffered a pryoplastic flow, a super heated ash, much of the structures including wooden furniture and beams were preserved. Its a bit of a scavenger/treasure hunt to find them. The four of us darted in and out of houses, villas, and baths, pointed out what not to miss to the others. A guide or map with the excellent mosaic floors like those in the baths and the incredible wall frescoes in the dining room highlighted with a star or an arrow would have helped.

The audio guide with more detailed subtopics such as culture, food and architectural styles is a must and is perhaps superior to the human variety that speaks strained English.

Like many of these sites, locations are closed for continuing work (why is it we never see anyone working?) and unfortunately the important Villa dei Papiri was closed. Nevertheless Herculaneum captures the historical romance of an era long gone and in any language, it is possible to imagine a vital town alive with bakeries, baths and bars.

As for those areas closed off for restoration,all the more reason to visit again. Perhaps next time we’ll invite an anthropologist studying the site to start the story at the beginning and fill in the gaps, tell the contemporary narrative of discovery and restoration.

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