Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Excursions from Sorrento: Herculaneum

We took a guided tour to Herculaneum, partly because I did not know the site as well and it is a far smaller site. Plus, the costings were not too bad.
Now, Herculaneum is in what is now one of the poorer parts of Naples. In the 18th century, it was the glitzy part -- the so called Golden Mile where neo classical palaces were built and furnished, mainly with items from the various digs. In fact, it was when in 1709 Prince D'Elboeuf, an Austrian purchased some land for a villa and had an artisan well dug. The digging of the well uncovered some fragments of the theatre and thus, Herculaneum was rediscovered.
On the way out, we saw the bags and bags of garbage lying in the street. Naples still has its rubbish collection problem...But the site itself is clean.
Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was covered in volcanic mud. This means it is far harder to excavate, but certain things like wood were preserved. Also, Pompeii's covering was far less. Herculaneum lies under something like 25 -30 metres of tufa. In some places, white hot lava from the 1644 eruption also lie on top. There are no plaster casts from Herculaneum as such things only happen when people/animals are covered in ash. There are bones (mostly discovered in the boathouses) and some other organic matter survived in the sewers. Thus, a clearer picture of what life was actually has appeared.
No one is quite sure how big Herculaneum is. They know the south boundary was the sea and they have found the western wall, but the north and east lie under a built up area. And while tunnels have been dug, not all is revealed.
One of the most famous early excavations -- The Villa of the Papryii still lies underground. After initial investigations, the tunnels were sealed in 1765. They were reopen and the are was re-excavated in the late 1980's. Among the finds are the carbonised remains of one of the greatest libraries in the ancient world. The Hewlett Packard foundation is working with the Italian government and it is hoped that some day, some more of the scrolls will be able to be read. The whole thing intrigues me -- what is there there? Why were the tunnels sealed? The Getty Museum in LA is a reconstruction of the villa.
Anyway, what is there is magnificent. Staircases remain intact. Roofs have been reconstructed. Many more frescoes are there. The mosaics glitter with brilliant colours. The photo to the right is a mosaic.
You can tell a shop, rather than a dwelling as there were grooves in the stone where the sliding doors were shut at night. Good ideas stand the test of time. The left photo is of a fast food shop, Roman style.
Again, like Pompeii, Herculaneum surpassed my expectations. I would not like to have to make a choice between which of the two to visit, but suspect that Herculaneum is more digestible.


Kate Hardy said...

Stunning. How I would love to go. And how INTERESTING about the library. What a fantastic job it would be, to make those scrolls readable again. (Am thinking of the Vindolanda letters, too.)

Natasha Oakley said...

What happened to change the fortune of that part of Naples?

Michelle Styles said...

Yes, I agree it would be a fantastic job. But then you know how I like such things.

Natasha I am not sure what happened. Some of it probably has to do with the unification of Italy and the fact there was no longer a court in Naples. Some of the mansions have been restored but some still have the blank faces of declay and decline. The land was sold off and cheap housing for the various industries were built there. Naples in general is a very poor city and it was heavily bombed during WW2. We will not speak about the role that corruption must have played as well.