Herculaneum: Pompeii’s mud-covered sister city

Naples, Italy

You've probably heard of Pompeii, home of ash-covered treasures and the famous plaster casts of the bodies of unfortunate victims from Vesuvio's eruption in 79 A.D.  New excavation techniques using were formulated, amazing art was discovered, and insight into a period of time nearly two millennia past was revealed.  Fascinating stuff!  Pompeii is one of my favorite places to visit in the Naples area.  …but have you heard of Pompeii's sister city, one covered not by ash, but by mud?  Let me introduce you to Herculaneum.


Silly sign makers.  It's a "U", not a "V"!  So hard to find good help these days.


I've been to Herculaneum twice.  The first time was before the shiny new visitor center was built and you still got to enter from the contemporary city of Ercolano, walking beneath a cool archway with old-timey script carved overhead.  The second time was through a parking lot, gift shop, and the whole shebang, built upon what used to be a strawberry field (sorry, Mr. Lennon).

The old path was a pretty dramatic way to enter the scene: after passing through the arch, you'd walk down a ramp over the ruins and see the ancient city laid out beneath you.  Even though we arrived via gift shop on the second trip, the ramp was still open for viewing.  It really helps provide perspective on just how deeply buried the city was.  Whereas Pompeii was covered by approximately 4 meters of ash, Herculaneum was buried under approximately 20 meters of mud, ash, and other pyroclastic material.


I wish those tourists would quit ruining my photos with their shadows!  …Oh.


On the first trip I was also with a tour group.  I have since discovered that most tour groups are crowded, rushed, and generally unsatisfying.  That was not the case this time.  Our guide for this trip was Aldo, the same fellow who led the trip to the Blue Grotto on Capri.  He's a third generation Neapolitan tour guide and has an amazingly gentle, graceful way of speaking.  He's also a walking encyclopedia.  If I was to take this tour again, I'd ask Dario to follow him around with a recording device while I frantically snapped photos. 

There is definitely something to be said about turning off the blogger brain and being in the moment, but with Aldo, it's worth putting the experience on hold to savor later.  He's just too amazing.  It's even been a bit of a struggle for me to write a post about Herculaneum because I know that I'm missing so much that he told us.  In any case, he really helped me fall in love with history and archaeological discoveries, embracing my nascent history buff-ness.  Yeah, occasionally you get really lucky with a guide!


View from the Love Boat.  Or maybe the Costa Concordia.


One thing that Aldo had us do was to stop on the way down and take a moment to grasp the scale.  Since Herculaneum was once a seaside town — those little archways were the entrances to boat houses — he suggested we imagine being on a cruise ship that had just pulled into port.  I thought that was one of the best bits of the whole day.  I love tricks that connect the present with the past.  Genius!

We walked down through a long tunnel with metal grate steps.  We could hear machinery running but weren't sure what it was.  When we reached the bottom, we discovered the noise came from pumps running continuously to keep water out of the lower part of the excavations.  Sea level and all that.  It was also exceedingly humid at the bottom of the ramp.  We stepped into sunlight and found ourselves in a miniature wetlands area. 


Our own little mini-swamp, complete with mosquitoes.


The big difference between Pompeii and Herculaneum is in what volcanic effects each town suffered when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.  As I understand it, the initial eruption blew ash and stone straight up into the sky until it hit the invisible barrier between the troposphere and the stratosphere, where it began to spread out.  The wind was blowing southeast toward Pompeii at the time.  Although there is speculation that the deaths in Pompeii were caused by suffocation from poisonous gases, it is now believed that heat was the main killer.  But just enough to kill, not to vaporize, as the plaster casts reveal the shape of flesh and clothing rather than just bones.


Can't see the video?  Watch it on YouTube: http://youtu.be/FwC42y73BgQ

The people in Herculaneum had more warning than the unfortunate residents of Pompeii and many of them managed to evacuate the town.  About 300, however, were hiding in boat houses on the water, possibly awaiting rescue, when a pyroclastic surge hit.  Sadly for the those 300 folks, what goes up must come down, and come down it did.

All that hot gas and rock headed back to terra firma and spread out in waves from the flanks of the volcano.  Because of the ratio of gas to rock, the material was able to spread more or less horizontally without being especially impaired by walls and valleys like a pyroclastic flow would have been.  The temperatures were higher than the ones that killed those in Pompeii, and the people in the boathouses probably died instant, if gruesome, deaths.  Yup, pretty much insta-toast.  Their flesh was gone so fast that ash filled in the space and preserved the bones.


Skull looking down and to the right.  Something on my shoe, perhaps.


Several waves of pyroclastic material (ash, gas, stone, mud) hit the town, burying it a little more each time.  And since there was no flesh to hold a shape, there are no plaster casts.  In fact, it was believed for many years that everyone had managed to escape.  It wasn't until 1981 that bones were first unearthed at the site.  To date, approximately 300 skeletons have been found.  Excavations are ongoing, and there is a great deal of the town that currently exists beneath the modern town of Ercolano, so it's possible there will be more.

On my first trip, in the boathouse right next to the walkway, there was a skull sitting in a roped-off area.  We could just barely see it, but I got what I could with my wee point and shoot camera.  By the time I had graduated to the DSLR and returned for another trip 9 months later, it was gone.  (Just heard Indy's voice say, "It belongs in a museum!" in my head.)

From the tourism point of view, Herculaneum is known for the vibrant colors of the frescoes inside some of the villas.  The details are, indeed, pretty impressive.  Aldo mentioned decorating trends among the rich and fashionable, or at least the ambitious middle class, including huge wall paintings that created false perspectives and make a room look at once opulent and much larger.

Possibly due to an earthquake in 62 A.D., some houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum were undergoing repairs and remodeling.  (And I thought getting a repair handled in present day Italy took a long time, sheesh!)  This allowed archaeologists to learn about some of the building and decorating techniques used at the time.  I don't know if this was a repair / remodel or just an example of chunk o' wall missing due to volcanic mud damage.  In any case, you can see the wall behind the fresco that shows how the artists sketch-carved their plan into the "canvas" beforehand.


That, my friends, is what archaeologists call a "scrapey-scratchy."


"Fresco" may be a bit off, seeing how old and stale it is, but it's pretty!


Well-preserved food.


Ok, ok…  so the frescoes are beautiful and amazing and have tremendous archaeological and historical value.  We're all impressed, right?  Right.  So, moving on to things that, I must admit, I find much cooler: mosaics and stonework.


The Little Mermaid, told in mosaic form.
(Not really – she lives in Copenhagen.  When she's not gallivanting around China, that is.)


One of the things that I find both exhilarating and shocking about historical sites and artifacts in Italy is how close you can get to them.  There are certainly some things that are too delicate to allow rough handling by the masses, but there's a surprising amount that you can not only touch, but walk on. 


It's a teeny peeny!


This is one of those moments when I wish I had an Aldo recording.  He told us all kinds of things about the lines and figures on the floor.  There were several wee phallic symbols of various types.  If I recall correctly, their presence indicated a strong belief in fertility magic and gods, possibly Priapus, and their orientation toward the door was used as an invocation against the evil eye. 

In any case, it was a wonderful illustration of how a great tour guide can make all the little details more meaningful.  Had Aldo not been there, I probably would have walked in, nodded to myself — "Hmm.  Black and white is cool." — taken a few photos, and moved on.  It's possible that the audio guides available for rent have some of this info, but can't swear to it.  If you can, get a Real Live Person guide!

One of the best things that Aldo showed us, and that I was able to show my friend, Marc, on our later trip, was the Watered Ancient Marble Trick.  Although we were allowed to walk on the ancient mosaics and stonework, it never occurred to me to do anything to further, em, "defile" the scene.  Granted, gum stuck to some poor schlep's shoe is more likely to damage it than a little water, but I was still surprised.  And yet the results were astonishing!


(Click to enlarge.)


Before and after indoors.



Before and after outdoors.


And because I just can't resist, here is a closeup of the outdoor scene (too gorgeous!).


I got nothin'.  It's just too pretty.


The outdoor tiles are right in front of a lovely garden where several statues were found.  Like in Pompeii and Oplontis, archeobotanists working with the project have helped identify many of the plants and trees that were grown at the time.  In some cases, like with this garden, the same flora, or a modern approximation thereof, have been planted in their historical positions to help give a better sense of what the place was really like.


As seen from the cruise ship.


Deer being attacked by hunting hounds. Pay no attention to the man urinating in the back.


Like statuary and greenery, certain key architectural aspects of daily life have been reconstructed.  The people of Herculaneum really liked their baths and decorative fountains, so they got pretty savvy on the water collection and conservation front.  Much like many of the houses on the island of Stromboli, the roofs are designed to funnel and collect rainwater. 


I so want this for my dream house.  The roof design, that is, not the explosive death by volcano.


I think you'd still get wet sitting on a bench that close to the opening, but what do I know?


I'm not clear on how the whole rain hole operation works, but the idea of collecting rainwater for practical use really appeals to me.  As does having an open courtyard, a sauna with hot and cold rooms, an ocean view, and fabulous home-grown wines.  The death by volcano, not so much.


A small part of the volcano watches you in Herculaneum.


Have you ever looked at a picture of Mt. Vesuvius from above?  Or maybe one of those classic paintings of the view from Posillipo across the Bay of Naples?  Did you notice the trademark double peaks of the volcano?  Here's the thing: the one on the right is the current cone, slowly rebuilding itself over the millennia.  The peak on the left is just the carved out former flank of what was once a massive, MASSIVE volcano.  The little bit you see in the picture there is intimidating enough, but it gets much more serious when you realize how high the single, united, pre-blast peak of the volcano was towering over the town.  Frankly, it's a wonder that anyone in the Naples region lived at all!

As you walk among the ruins and feel the ancient cobblestones beneath your feet, you can almost get a sense of what life might have been like here.  Small details like the evidence of different construction techniques may escape you, but things like a caper bush sprouting up unexpectedly in a wall remind you that life goes on.  It also reminded me that caper bushes are a defiant little lot, since they are quite difficult to cultivate.  Won't grow in your garden with all the love, care, and fertilizer you can lavish on them, but oh, yes, they'll pop right up in a brick wall, thankyouverymuch!


Capers mock you from above.


You will probably come across some wacky, Hershey's Kiss-like stones near intersections.  I believe these were simple devices to keep carts and chariots from smashing into the corners of buildings and curbs.  As you can tell by the worn shape of the stone, it looks as if it was necessary!


Pesky charioteers.  Have no respect for a decent society!


Despite its small size relative to Pompeii, there are plenty of mosaics, frescoes, reliefs and friezes, and statues to discover throughout the site.  There are lush garden courtyards, an apple orchard, and preserved (charred) wooden doors.  And let's not forget the Villa dei Papiri, a residence with an extensive library of papyrus scrolls.  There are rumors that the villa belonged to Julius Caesar's father-in-law — Wikipedia perpetuates this belief — but as I understand it, modern scholars believe this is all a lot of hooey. 

Regardless of who the owner was, it is true that the library was most impressive.  Some of the scrolls survived, despite the destruction, and have been successfully unrolled and deciphered.  Others are being examined even now using the latest technology in hopes that the information contained within can be extracted in a non-invasive manner. 

According to Frommer's the villa is open to the public, though it does close down on occasion for restoration.  I'm pretty sure that's what was going on both times I was at Herculaneum, as the villa is off a ways from the rest of the town and accessed through an area that didn't look especially welcoming or open.  If it's closed when you go — or even if it's not! — please consider going to the Archaeological Museum of Naples.  It has some of the most amazing art and artifacts from the region.  Really mind-blowing and beautiful stuff.


"Ciao a tutti!" means "food for the tooters!"  He says this because
you came on a cruise ship that blew the ship's whistle upon arrival.  Maybe.


On your way out, please say goodbye to the host for your journey into the past: Proconsul Marcus Nonius Balbus (or possibly Mr. Roarke).  You were probably too busy marveling at the view when your ship pulled into port, but he was there waving at you in his unique, half-reconstructed manner.  Don't worry, he wasn't offended that you didn't smile back.  He'll send you off with a cheerful wave just the same.



I hope I've gotten you curious enough to visit this part of Italy and to maybe dig a little deeper (see what I did there?) into the local archaeological sites.  Besides Pompeii and Herculaneum, there are Oplontis, Stabia, and Boscoreale to explore.  The official site has all the info on location, hours, and prices, but it's in Italian, so if you aren't fluent, get your favorite online translator ready!


What archaeological site do you dig the most?


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  1. Anna V. says:

    Thank you for all the great info. Yes, we too, would like it if you would forward Aldo’s info. We will be visiting next week! So glad we found your site!

    1. Hey, Anna! Thanks for the comment. Composing an email to you right now. :)

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Aldo sounds like a wonderfully knowledgeable and engaging guide. How can he be contacted, as I’m planning to visit Herculaneum next month.

    1. Hi, Bob! Yes, Aldo knows a lot – maybe too much! ;)

      I’ve sent you an email with his contact info. Please let me know how it goes!

  3. Thanks for the great insights about Pompeii’s sister city. I think I’d much prefer Herculaneum to the crowds of Pompeii.

    1. The thing about Pompeii is that the crowds tend to only be around a few of the key features or districts. It’s so vast that you can easily spend an entire day there and only have to deal with groups of people in a couple of areas. Of course, they are around some of the most noteworthy places…

      As with any tourism hotspot, the trick is to get to either place really early or *knock on wood* get lucky with the timing and not show up at the same time a wave of tour buses is rolling in. I’m fond of both places, but I am like you and would much prefer to avoid crowds altogether. In Italy, probably the best way to do it to simply go during the off-season. ;)

  4. This sounds fantastic! I have always wanted to see Pompeii but this sounds just as fascinating. Great photos!

    1. Thanks, Cherina! If you visit southern Italy, I highly recommend visiting both if you have the time. Pompeii is really big and one could easily spend half a day there (more, since you’re a photographer :). Herculaneum is much smaller, but in some ways, more revealing. If you possibly can, climb Vesuvius, too. The views are astonishing.

  5. Great post! I will be in the Sorrento area for 3 days with my niece and she wants to go to Pompeii – do you know if your fabulous tour guide does tours there too? Or do you have any advice for the best way to tour it? Or any other advice for that region? I know that we want to have pizza in Naples – so if you have any recs – please let me know!

    1. Got lots of info and may be able to track down Aldo’s # for you, though his prices for private tours are quite steep. When are you going? I’ll put something together for you. :)

      1. We will be in the Sorrento area from March 14 – 16 – 3 days. Want to take a bus down the coast, eat pizza in Naples, and see Pompeii – but open to other suggestions! However – I doubt we could afford a high priced private tour – so if you have any other suggestions – let me know. I’ve been to the area before, but it’s my niece’s first time. I wasn’t a huge fan of Pompeii but I kinda chalked that up to the fact that I didn’t have a guide and it just looked like a pile of rocks to me. So thought a guide of some sort might help this time! Thanks for sharing! Where are you guys now? I’ll be in Italy for a few weeks traveling around.

  6. Really fascinating! I’d heard of Hercv…Herculaneum before, but never really knew what had happened there. Death by pyroclastic surge sounds pretty gruesome. I totally geek out when it comes to archaeological stuff from this era – I’d have to say that Ephesus in Turkey is my favourite archaeological site. I’d LOVE to visit Palmyra in Syria, too.

    Love your writing in this as well, it made me chuckle a lot – those capers are a defiant bunch. They’re like that student you teach that does no homework all year and causes trouble in class, yet manages to get 90% in their final exam somehow…grrr.

    1. Thank you, Tom! I really appreciate the tips. I will add both sites to my list.

      About the capers: Dario’s (my husband) mom read the post and had a lightbulb moment. She’d been pulling them out of the garden wall for years, not knowing what they were. I suspect that in the next couple of years we might have some (accidentally) home grown capers to sample. ;)

  7. Fascinating article and awesome pictures my friend!! Great job!! Love that shot of the volcano looming over the building…very ominously I might add.

    1. Aww, thanks, Jeff. You’re always such a ray of sunshine! When are we going to catch up in person? Man, I think we need a website for all travel bloggers to register on to track their movements and itineraries. ;)

  8. Rob says:

    Hercvlanevm is pretty interesting. Watched a PBS special on it a couple of years ago, and have it on my list of places to visit.

    You forgot your high-school latin, though. There was no letter “U” in the original latin. Or “J” for that matter. :)

    1. Oh, Rob! If it only it had been a faulty memory. Alas, I grew up in the US, so I’m afraid it was a faulty education system. …It is also the fault of my sense of humor. :P

  9. This looks amazing. This is definitely going on the list for the next time I am in Italy

    1. See? Now that’s the kind of thing that makes my day. I’m always so flattered when my opinion helps shape someone else’s travel. When you do go, be sure to let me know what you think! :)

  10. Good tour guides with that kind of knowledge are often worth their weight in gold. It is lucky that most of them walk so much as to weight fairly less than their couch-potato guide brothers.

    Definitely more Italy is on the list. I have not been south of Pisa so there is a lot to see.

    1. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Mr. Potatohead showing people around, but I agree that Aldo is worth his weight in gold. Tremendous fellow!

  11. serenella says:

    good … you’re always precise in details and feelings …… My heart rejoices when writing Neapolitan of Naples and its surroundings……

    1. Grazie, Serenella. I am happy that my posts make you smile. :)

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