Herculaneum (Ercolano)

If there’s one sight near Naples that everyone knows about it’s Pompeii. It’s so important that you can’t spell Pompeii without two “I”s. I think two “I”s make an “us.” Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to spell it as “Pompeus.” Go figure.

As important as Pompeii is, it’s not where I went this morning. Instead, I went to Herculaneum or, in Italian, Ercolano.

(I couldn’t find an English version of Herculaneum’s website. Sometimes they bury the link in small letters with little contrast with the background. So I might have missed it. But if you visit Herculaneum’s Italian website (linked here), the translation feature of most web browsers does a reasonable job of translating it. At least, I think it does. If the translation doesn’t reflect the original Italian in the least I wouldn’t know.)

I visited Pompeii during my one previous visit to Naples over a decade ago. But I didn’t go to Herculaneum then. So this is uncharted territory for me.

Pompeii gets all the fame, but Vesuvius destroyed Herculaneum in 79 CE too. That eruption buried Pompeii in ash fairly quickly. But the wind direction spared Herculaneum—for about 12 hours. Then a sea of ash, hot gases, and mud buried Herculaneum.

According to my guidebook, this hardened volcanic mud did a better job of preserving the buildings and artifacts of Herculaneum than the dry ash that buried Pompeii preserved its buildings and artifacts. However, it also made the site more difficult to excavate. Nevertheless, a portion of it has been excavated over the past 300 years or so.

There are far fewer ruins in the Herculaneum archaeological park, and it covers a much smaller area, than at the Pompeii archaeological park. So if you’re in Naples and short on time, Herculaneum is the one to visit. But I’m ambitious in that regard. Herculaneum is on the same train line as Pompeii. I plan to also visit the latter in the afternoon. We’ll see how that goes.

Herculaneum Archaeological Site

The archaeological park at Herculaneum is, as I said, not huge. It covers an area roughly four short blocks wide and two long blocks long. The long blocks are long enough that that dimension is slightly larger than the other.

No. I didn’t measure it. I eyeballed a map.

To get a better sense of what I was seeing, I rented an audioguide that provided a wealth of information about the nature and uses of many, although not all, of buildings at the archaeological site. As regular readers have come to expect, you won’t find much of the information from the audioguide on this page. I forget most of it.

Just past the ticketing area, and before getting to the archaeological site, there’s a good place to get a view of the whole site before walking down into the excavated area. I posted a picture of it here.

One thing to keep in mind if you’re trying to visualize beyond the pictures here what I saw this morning is that these are ruins. None of the buildings are structurally complete. All of the ones I went into that had audioguide entries had walls that were somewhat complete for the height of one storey. But some had originally been two-story buildings. There was at least one or two buildings with still standing second floors, but entry was barred.

And some of the buildings that didn’t have audioguide entries didn’t even have all of the full height of their ground-floor walls.

The buildings included houses (both common folk homes and the noble people homes), shops (including a bakery), public baths (separate men’s and women’s baths), and eateries. One of the homes is more like a villa. It has a nice courtyard.

One thing that struck me is that most of the homes weren’t particularly large, even the noble people’s homes. Then again, some originally had second floors that, as I said, are no longer there. So those buildings would have had about twice the floor space I saw today.

Having said that, coming from Toronto, I shouldn’t talk about small homes. Except for luxury condos, the smaller units in new condominium buildings are of a size that used to be described as a walk-in closet. I’m only slightly exaggerating. And even then, the prices of those units are out of the reach of low-income, and even low-middle-income families. If I hadn’t bought my condo an era ago, I’m not sure I could afford to live there now.

But I digress. Back to Herculaneum.

As I said, the excavated section of ancient Herculaneum is not very large but there were at least three eateries there. Three eateries within not all that many blocks. I could live in a place like that.

One of the two storey buildings standing in the Herculaneum archaeological site.
One of the two storey buildings standing in the Herculaneum archaeological site.

All of the eateries were of the same general design. They had counters decorated with marble fragments fit together. A few round holes were cut into the counters. When the eateries were in operation, the proprietors put pots of food in the holes. I don’t know if customers served themselves or the proprietors served the customers. Whatever, I found myself getting hungry.

About those public baths, yeah, no. I don’t think I could have survived in ancient times, even with the existence of plentiful eateries. For one thing, I shower. I don’t take baths. For another thing, public baths? No. No, no, no!

I don’t even like using public bathrooms to pee, but you’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. But I definitely need a private bathroom—at home, in my hotel room, or at a friend’s or relative’s place if I’m staying with an out-of-town friend or relative—to shower. That’s not debatable.


A fresco in the Herculaneum museum
A fresco in the Herculaneum museum

When my guidebook said the hardened volcanic mud did a better job of preserving the buildings and artifacts at Herculaneum than the ash did at Pompeii I got the wrong idea. Although if I had thought about it for a second I would have realized I was wrong.

I assumed that because the artifacts were so well preserved, I’d get to see a trove of them at the Herculaneum site.

My experience at the Archaeological Museum of Naples should have given me a clue to the truth. Most of the artifacts have been removed and placed in museums to protect them from the tromping hordes and the elements. And to create draws for the museums, but let’s go with the protecting thing.

There are a few buildings at the Herculaneum archaeological park that have some original frescoes still on the walls, although they’re in generally rough shape. Lucky for them they’re not of museum quality. They got to stay home. And there are a few original tile mosaics on some floors, some aren’t in bad condition. But that’s about it. There are a few small statues, but they’re copies. The originals are in museums.

The Herculaneum archaeological park has a museum with some artifacts, but it’s tiny. They have a very limited number of statues, a fresco or two, some household items, and some jewelry. That’s about it.

Herculaneum and Vesuvius

This section can apply equally to Pompeii, but, because the Pompeii archaeological site is much bigger, I suspect that post will be longer than this one. So I’ll put it here. Keep what I’m about to say in mind when my Pompeii post appears and you read it. (Am I being too presumptuous in thinking you’ll read it? I’ll try to remember to come back here and post a link when I publish it, but I might forget.)

The point I want to make is this. Neither Herculaneum nor Pompeii are just archaeological parks. They are real, living cities with a lot of modern day residents.

On the five or so minute walk from the train station to the Herculaneum archaeological park I passed a number of mid-rise apartment buildings. And the city extends well beyond that. I’m not sure, but I think Pompeii has even more modern-day residents than Herculaneum.

Here’s the thing. Vesuvius is still an active volcano. There have been many eruptions since the 79 CE quake that destroyed Herculaneum, Pompeii, and other towns near Vesuvius. None of those subsequent eruptions have been of the same city-destroying intensity, but another big one is possible.

So why did they rebuild cities in a proven possible zone of annihilation. Did they learn absolutely nothing from history?

And this raises another even more important question. What the hell am i doing here? Stay calm, Vesuvius. Stay calm.

Lunch and Leaving Herculaneum

Because of my ambitious schedule, lunch was just a prosciutto and cheese sandwich and some fizzy water that I bought at a café near the entry/exit for the Herculaneum archaeological site. I didn’t have a lot of time until the train I wanted to catch so I wolfed it down.

I made it to the train station with a few minutes to spare. The train line that serves the route has at least one entry gate in each station that doesn’t require a ticket. There’s a credit card reader where you tap on when you enter and tap off when you exit. It then charges you the correct fare. That’s what I used to get from Naples to Herculaneum.

I read that if you use it multiple times a day and a day pass is cheaper, that’s what they charge you.

At the Herculaneum station, I ran for the one ticket gate (there was no one at it) and tapped my card. I got no response. No rejection of my card. No gate opening. Nothing.

I tried a few more times to the same effect.

I went to the ticket window to buy a ticket. There was someone ahead of me who had to have a discussion with the ticket seller.

Consequently, I would have missed the train if it were on time. It was four minutes late. I made it. Luck isn’t always on my side, but I’m happy when it is.

So, it was on to Pompeii for me. Consider that a coming attraction preview. Catch you then.

    • would
    • have been better living in Pompeii back then. Except of course, for the public baths, and, as you note the problem of having a volcano explode on your head. Well there’s also all of those diseases for which they didn’t have cures. And the lack of labour saving appliances. And having to watch gladiator fights for entertainment and pretend that you actually enjoy the violence. And fewer, much slower transportation options. And … hmm, maybe it’s better today despite all of our problems.


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