A visit to Pompeii’s smaller but richer sister, Herculaneum

Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were coastal cities, but Herculaneum, while smaller, was also wealthier than Pompeii, leaving behind an unusually dense community of dwellings and far more lavish frescoes and colorful marble furnishings.

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Herculaneum is a smaller, but richer excavation than Pompeii (Taylor)
Herculaneum is a smaller, but richer excavation than Pompeii (Taylor)

ERCOLANO, Italy, July 16, 2016 – On the afternoon of Aug. 24, A.D. 79, Mt. Vesuvius blew its top and swallowed two thriving Roman communities. Today, designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, both Pompeii and Herculaneum have been partially excavated to provide superb insights into Roman life as it was 2,000 years ago.

Typical street in Herculaneum (Taylor)
Typical street in Herculaneum (Taylor)

Though Pompeii is better known and larger than her little sister, Herculaneum’s discovery and excavations are older. Major excavations began in Ercolano, the Italian name for Herculaneum, as early as 1738 by a Spanish engineer.

Excavations later resumed in the 20th century; however, 75 percent of the ruins have yet to be uncovered.

Both Pompeii and Herculaneum were coastal cities, but, unlike Pompeii, many of the organic-based objects found in Ercolano are better preserved due to the way the pyroclastic material fell.



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Herculaneum, while smaller, was also wealthier than Pompeii, leaving behind an unusually dense community of dwellings and far more lavish frescoes and colorful marble furnishings.

Mt. Vesuvius as it looks today peering down at Herculaneum (Taylor)
Mt. Vesuvius as it looks today peering down at Herculaneum (Taylor)

Vesuvius had been dormant for nearly 800 years at the time of the eruption, so it was no longer recognized as a volcano. Thanks to two letters by historian Pliny the Younger, a timeline of the eruption has been documented to show that Vesuvius began to spew volcanic ash around 1 p.m. At the time, the prevailing winds were blowing toward the southeast, causing most of the material to fall upon Pompeii on the other side of the mountain.

Ancient columns peer into the past (Taylor)
Ancient columns peer into the past (Taylor)

Herculaneum, which lies to the west of Pompeii, suffered little damage from the initial phase of the eruption while much of Pompeii was crushed under the weight of the debris.

At Herculaneum, mostly ash and hot gases struck the city, although there were at least six surges of volcanic material that reached the largely evacuated site at speeds of 100 mph. Because of the way Herculaneum was buried, many of the buildings and other structures suffered little damage, which is why so much of it was preserved for future excavations.

Most of the deaths in Herculaneum were caused by heat and suffocation rather than flowing lava.

Intricate mosaic is a fine example of the preservation of Herculaneum (Taylor)
Intricate mosaic is a fine example of the preservation of Herculaneum (Taylor)

Surprisingly, recent discoveries have uncovered several hundred skeletons along the seashore, causing many historians to alter their thinking about the number of people who were able to escape the eruption.

For travelers, Herculaneum is probably more manageable than Pompeii due to its size. The site is more rectangular in shape than its larger Roman counterpart, which was generally circular in design.

Original wood from 79 AD (Taylor)
Original wood from A.D. 79 (Taylor)

In many places the original wood has been preserved and provides historians insights into construction techniques that are not available in Pompeii.

For novices, the Herculaneum site is a vibrant and appealing glimpse into an ancient Roman civilization.

For archaeologists, however, the excavations offer a detailed guide that had previously been the product only of educated speculation.

Roman sign as it was at the time of the eruption (Taylor)
Roman sign as it was at the time of the eruption (Taylor)

Among the most valued artifacts unearthed to date are those found at the Villa of the Papyri, once a luxurious seafront retreat for Lucius Calpumius Piso Caesoninus.

If that name is unfamiliar, consider that Caesoninus was Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, and some of the pieces of the puzzle begin to create a picture of the period.

Several papyrus scrolls were discovered at the Villa of the Papyri between 1752 and 1754. Due to carbonization, attempts to unroll the papyrus have had varying degrees of success in the past, but thanks to contemporary infra-red imaging, the ink is today becoming more legible.

Well preserved mosaics at Herculaneum (Taylor)
Well-preserved mosaics at Herculaneum (Taylor)

Scientists hope that these modern “x-rays” will not only aid in the written information about the life and times of Herculaneum, but also provide details about the overall layout of the city so that more excavations can be made with less potential for damaging the ruins.

Herculaneum was a thriving and wealthy coastal Roman city (Taylor)
Herculaneum was a thriving and wealthy coastal Roman city (Taylor)

Among the problems of excavating Herculaneum is the exposure of organic materials to the air after they were uncovered.


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Vandalism has also resulted in damage to some of the areas open to the public, and tourism is also regarded as a culprit in the deterioration process. The paradox regarding travelers is that Herculaneum is a window into the past that should be available to contemporary visitors, while they are also contributing to eroding some of the conservation efforts.

For the moment, excavations of the site have been temporarily discontinued in an effort to preserve what has already been discovered.

Original lead pipe supplied running water (Taylor)
Original lead pipe supplied running water (Taylor)

Whether travelers choose to visit Herculaneum or Pompeii or both, the sites offer valuable reference points for even the untrained eye into the life and times as it was lived 2,000 years ago.

Perhaps most amazing is how creative humans were during a time we sophisticated residents of the 21sr century often regard as “primitive.”

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.

He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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