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Herculaneum (in modern Italian Ercolano) is the ruins of an ancient Roman town destroyed by volcanic pyroclastic flows in 79 AD, located in the territory of the current commune of Ercolanomarker, Italymarker. Its ruins can be found at the co-ordinates , in the Italian region of Campania in the shadow of Mt.marker Vesuviusmarker.

It is most famous for having been lost, along with Pompeiimarker, Stabiaemarker and Oplontismarker, in the eruption of Mount Vesuviusmarker beginning on August 24, 79 AD, which buried them in superheated pyroclastic material that has solidified into volcanic tuff. It also became famous as the source of the first Roman skeletal and physical remains available for study that were located by science, for the Romans almost universally burned their dead. Since the discovery of bones in 1981, some 150 skeletons have been found, most along the sea shore the town itself, being effectively evacuated. Herculaneum was a smaller town with a wealthier population than Pompeii at the time of their destruction.


Plan of Herculaneum
Ancient tradition connected Herculaneum with the name of the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules in Latin and consequently Roman Mythology), an indication that the city was of Greek origin. In fact, it seems that some forefathers of the Samnite tribes of the Italian mainland founded the first civilization on the site of Herculaneum at the end of the 6th century BC. Soon after, the town came under Greek control and was used as a trading post because of its proximity to the Gulf of Naplesmarker. The Greeks named the city Herculaneum. In the 4th century BC, Herculaneum again came under the domination of the Samnites. The city remained under Samnite control until it became a Roman municipium in 89 BC, when, having participated in the Social War ("war of the allies" against Rome), it was defeated by Titus Didius, a legate of Sulla.

After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the town of Herculaneum was buried under approximately 20 meters (50-60 feet) of lava, mud and ash. It lay hidden and nearly intact for more than 1600 years until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709. From there, the excavation process began but is still incomplete. Today, the Italian towns of Ercolanomarker and Porticimarker lie on the approximate site of Herculaneum. Until 1969 the town of Ercolano was called Resinamarker, and it changed its name to Ercolano, the Italian modernization of the ancient name in honour of the old city.

The inhabitants worshipped above all Hercules, who was believed to be the founder of both the town and Mount Vesuvius. Other important deities worshiped include Venus, who was believed to be Hercules' lover, and Apollo.

The eruption of 79 AD

The catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius occurred on the afternoon of August 24, 79 AD. Because Vesuvius had been dormant for approximately 800 years, it was no longer even recognized as a volcano.

Based on the archaeological excavations on the one hand and two letters of Pliny the Younger to the Roman historian Tacitus on the other hand, the course of the eruption can be reconstructed.

At around 1pm on August 27, Vesuvius began spewing ash and volcanic stone thousands of meters into the sky. When it reached the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the top of the cloud flattened, prompting Pliny to describe it to Tacitus as a stone pine tree. The prevailing winds at the time blew toward the southeast, causing the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city of Pompeii and the surrounding area. Since Herculaneum lay to the west of Vesuvius, it was only mildly affected by the first phase of the eruption. While roofs in Pompeii collapsed under the weight of falling debris, only a few centimetres of ash fell on Herculaneum, causing little damage but nonetheless prompting many inhabitants to flee.

Because initial excavations revealed only a few skeletons, it was long thought that nearly all of the inhabitants had managed to escape. It wasn't until 1982, when the excavations reached boat houses on the beach area, that this view changed. In 12 boat houses archaeologists discovered 250 skeletons huddled close together.

Boat houses where skeletons were found

During the night, the column of volcanic debris which had risen into the stratosphere began falling back down onto Vesuvius. A pyroclastic flow formed that sent a mixture of 400°C (750°F) gas, ash, and rock racing down at toward Herculaneum. At about 1am it reached the boat houses, where those waiting for rescue were killed instantly by the intense heat. This flow and several more following it slowly filled the city's buildings from the bottom up, causing them little damage.

The surprisingly good state of preservation of the structures and their contents is due to three factors:

  1. By the time the wind changed and ash began to fall on Herculaneum, the structures were already filled with volcanic debris. Thus the roofs did not collapse.
  2. The intense heat of the first pyroclastic flow carbonized the surface of organic materials and extracted the water from them.
  3. The deep (up to 25 meters), dense tuff formed an airtight seal over Herculaneum for 1,700 years


The skeleton called the "Ring Lady" unearthed in Herculaneum.
Excavation began at modern Ercolano in 1738 by Spanish engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. The elaborate publication of Le Antichità di Ercolano ("The Antiquities of Herculaneum") under the patronage of the King of the Two Sicilies had an effect on incipient European Neoclassicism out of all proportion to its limited circulation; in the later 18th century, motifs from Herculaneum began to appear on stylish furnishings from decorative wall-paintings and tripod tables to perfume burners and teacups. However, excavation ceased once the nearby town of Pompeii was discovered, which was significantly easier to excavate due to the reduced amount of debris covering the site (four meters as opposed to Herculaneum's twenty meters). In the twentieth century, excavation once again resumed in the town. However, many public and private buildings, including the forum complex, are yet to be excavated.

Skeletal remains

The pyroclastic flow instantly killed all residents who had not escaped before it struck. In contrast to Pompeii, the remains of those killed at Herculaneum were not preserved in plaster casts.

In 1981, Italian public works employees, under the direction of Dr. Giuseppe Maggi, found bones at the Herculaneum site while digging a drainage trench. Italian officials, at Dr. Maggi's urging, called in Sara C. Bisel, a physical anthropologist from the United States, to oversee the excavation and study the bones. This research was funded with a grant from the National Geographic Societymarker.

Until this discovery, there were few Roman skeletal remains available for academic study, as Ancient Romans regularly practiced cremation. Excavations in the port area of Herculaneum initially turned up more than 55 skeletons: 30 adult males, 13 adult females and 12 children. The skeletons were found on the seafront, where it is believed they had fled in an attempt to escape the volcanic eruption. This group includes the 'Ring Lady' (image at right, by National Geographic photographer Lou Mazzatenta), named for the rings on her fingers.

Through the chemical analysis of those remains, Dr. Bisel was able to gain greater insight into the health and nutrition of the Herculaneum population. Quantities of lead were found in some of the skeletons, which led to speculation of lead poisoning. The physical examination of the bones yielded additional information. The presence of scarring on the pelvis, for instance, gave some indication of the number of children a woman had borne.

Specific buildings

To expand this section, translate :it:Scavi archeologici di Ercolano.

Open excavation

The buildings at the site are grouped in blocks (insulae), defined by the intersection of the east-west (cardi) and north-south (decumani) streets.

Hence we have Insula II - Insula VII running anti-clockwise from Insula II. To the east are two additional blocks: Orientalis I (oI) and Orientalis II (oII). To the south of Orientalis I (oI) lies one additional group of buildings known as the 'Suburban District' (SD).

Individual buildings having their own entrance number. For example, the House of the Deer is labelled (Ins IV, 3).

The House of Aristides (Ins II, 1)

The first building in insula II is the House of Aristides. The entrance opens directly onto the atrium, but the remainder of the house is not particularly well preserved due to damage caused by previous excavations. The lower floor was probably used for storage.

The House of Argus (Ins II, 2)

The second house in insula II got its name from a fresco of Argus and Io which once adorned a reception room off the large peristyle. The fresco is now sadly lost, but its name lives on. This building must have been one of the finer villas in Herculaneum.The discovery of the house in the late 1820s was notable because it was the first time a second floor had been unearthed in such detail. The excavation revealed a second floor balcony overlooking Cardo III. Also wooden shelving and cupboards. Sadly with the passing of time, these elements have now been lost.

The House of the Genius (Ins II, 3)

To the north of the House of Argus lies the House of the Genius. It has only been partially excavated but it appears to have been a spacious building. The house derives its name from the statue of a cupid that formed part of a candlestick. In the centre of the peristyle are the remains of a rectangular basin.

The House of the Alcove (Ins IV)

The house is actually two buildings joined together. As a consequence of this it is a mixture of plain and simple rooms combined with some highly decorated ones.

The atrium is covered, so lacks the usual impluvium. It retains its original flooring of opus tesselatum and opus sectile. Off the atrium is a biclinium richly decorated with frescoes in the fourth style and a large triclinium which originally had a marble floor. A number of other rooms, one of which is the apsed alcove after which the house was named, can be reached via a hall which gets its light from a small courtyard.

College of the Augustales

Temple of the augustales or priests of the imperial cult

Villa of the Papyri

The most famous of the luxurious villas at Herculaneum is the "Villa of the Papyri" now identified as the magnificent seafront retreat for Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar's father-in-law. It stretches down towards the sea in four terraces. Piso, a literate man who patronized poets and philosophers, built there a fine library, the only one to survive intact from antiquity. Scrolls from the villa are stored at the National Library, Naplesmarker. The scrolls are badly carbonized, but a large number have been unrolled, with varying degrees of success. Computer-enhanced multi-spectral imaging, in the infra-red range, helps make the ink legible. There is now a real prospect that it will be possible to read the unopened scrolls using X-rays.[761417] The same techniques could be applied to the scrolls waiting to be discovered in the as-yet unexcavated part of the villa, removing the need for potentially damaging the unrolled scrolls.

Issues of conservation

The volcanic water, ash and debris covering Herculaneum, along with the extreme heat, left it in a remarkable state of preservation for over 1600 years. However, once excavations began, exposure to the elements began the slow process of deterioration. This was not helped by the methods of archaeology used earlier in the town's excavation, which generally centered around recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the survival of all artifacts. In the early 1980s and under the direction of Dr. Sara C. Bisel, preservation of the skeletal remains became a high priority. The carbonised remains of organic materials, when exposed to the air, deteriorated over a matter of days, and destroyed many of the remains until a way of preserving them was formed.

Today, tourism and vandalism has damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage coming from the modern Ercolano has undermined many of the foundations of the buildings. Reconstruction efforts have often proved counterproductive, however in modern times conservation efforts have been more successful. Today excavations have been temporarily discontinued, in order to direct all funding to help save the city.

A large number of artifacts come from Herculaneum are preserved in the Naples National Archaeological Museummarker.


Image:Ercolano2 Copyright2003KaihsuTai.jpg|The house is noted for this outstanding summer triclinium with a nymphaeum decorated with coloured mosaicsImage:Herculaneum Neptune And Amphitrite.jpg|Herculaneum, Neptune and Amphitrite, wall mosaic in House Number 22Image:Roman Road Surface at Herculaneum.jpg|Street paving stones in HerculaneumImage:Water Pipe In Herculaneum.jpg|Residential water pipe made of lead in HerculaneumImage:Herculaneum Wall 1.Style.jpg|Wall paintings in the first styleImage:Herculaneum Floor.jpg|Inlaid marble floor



  • National Geographic, Vol 162, No 6. Buried Roman Town Give Up Its Dead, (December, 1982)
  • National Geographic, Vol 165, No 5. The Dead Do Tell Tales, (May, 1984)
  • Discover, magazine, Vol 5, No 10. The Bone Lady (October, 1984)
  • The Mayo Alumnus, Vol 19, No2. An Archaeologist's Preliminary Report: Time Warp at Herculaneum, (April, 1983)
  • Carnegie Mellon Magazine, Vol 4, No 2. Bone Lady Reconstructs People at Herculaneum, Winter, 1985
  • In the Shadow of Vesuvius National Geographic Special, (February 11, 1987)
  • 30 years of National Geographic Special, (January 25, 1995)

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