Probably the most famous archaeological discovery to mankind is the city ruins of Pompeii. In pop culture, Pompeii is known as the city that was washed away by Mount Vesuvius. But did you know that another city fell victim that August day in 79 AD? Its name is Herculaneum.
Herculaneum was a Roman city on the port of the Gulf of Naples (Figure 1). In trying to reconstruct the past of these townspeople, archaeologists have found several luxurious places including bathhouses and theaters. This suggests that the town was one of the wealthiest areas in the Roman Empire, unlike its sister city Pompeii (Herculaneum 2016). It could even be a vacation spot! So, it was like the Hawaii of the Roman Empire!
However, that all changed on midnight, August 24th, 79 AD (Sheldon 2010). Mount Vesuvius wiped everything in its past. For the other Romans looking in, it was assumed that everyone escaped. That was it. From the records, no one talked about the city and the “story” of Herculaneum was sealed under sixty feet of volcanic material (Britannica 2019). It would reopen hundreds of years later. There isn’t a clear source as to how it was discovered. However, all sources have a common thread; it was accidentally founded by ordinary people in the 18th century.
Immediately, archaeologists from around the world wouldn’t only excavate Herculaneum but also explain the past of these ancient people. The site of Herculaneum is one of the best preserved sites in the world. The volcanic ash actually preserved the city underneath. Archaeologists got to recover jewelry and even food (Sheldon 2010)! The only food found were loaves of bread found within ovens that were accessible only to the higher class (Britannica 2019). In Pompeii, the volcanic material actually preserved the human body; we see the final positions they were in before they perished. In Herculaneum, it was initially believed that they escaped since no human bodies were found. Then in the 1980s, two hundred fifty human skeletons were found, like Figure 2, suggesting that the pyroclastic flow burned them, leaving only bone (Difference 2013).
Today, Herculaneum is a tourist attraction (Figure 3). The discovery of Herculaneum debunks the myth that archaeology is a fully planned out process in that archaeologists know where the sites are beforehand. Herculaneum was discovered by accident; it’s through chance and improvisation in which the archaeological process for the city was founded upon. Through the various findings, we can tell the story of these Romans thousands of years later. The ovens, jewelry, boats, and bathhouses were the pieces to the puzzle on how we can confirm that Herculaneum was exclusive to the upper class. Only through archaeology could we do all of this and that’s the beauty of this field.
Has the inner archaeologist in you want to explore this site? Here are two links to start your adventure:
Britannica, The Editors of EncyclopaediaHerculaneum. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. 2019.
Difference Between Pompeii and Herculaneum. DifferenceBetween.com. May 7. 2013.
Herculaneum Half-day Tour. VisitPompeiiVesuvius.com. 2016.
Sheldon, Natasha. The History of Herculaneum. Ancient History and Archaeology.com. 2010.
File:Mt Vesuvius 79 AD eruption.svg. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation.
Kleiner, Diane E.E2018 Habitats at Herculaneum and Early Roman Interior Decoration. We’re Never Far from Where We Were. February 19.
Parco Acheologico di Ercolano – 2019 All You Need to Know BEFORE You Go (with Photos). TripAdvisor.