Herculaneum, also called "the second Pompeii" is one of the best preserved ancient Roman towns to this day. In many aspects, even better than Pompeii itself. The site is not as large as Pompeii but it has been estimated that only one third of Herculaneum has been excavated so far. What you can find here, in contrast to Pompeii, is for example entirely preserved two-story buildings together with original wooden logs, beds, doors and other furniture. In my opinion, the site of Herculaneum is more concentrated, it occupies less space but it's as great as its famous counterpart - Pompeii. If you visit the bay of Naples, although most of the tourist head straight for Pompeii (I have described it here), don't miss Herculaneum - you won't regret it.
How to get to Herculaneum
It's easy to get to Herculaneum, from Naples, from the main train station take the regional Circumvesuviana train to Ercolano Scavi (Naples-Sorrento line). The journey takes around 20 minutes and it will cost around 2 EUR (2.60 USD) one way. When you get off at the station, follow the road straight down towards the sea and in around 10 minutes you will get to the main gate of the Herculaneum site. Visiting will take around 2 hours, there are audio guides available for 5 EUR (6.60 USD).
Opening hours: 8:30 AM - 6 PM (1st April - 31st October) and 8:30 - 3:30 (1st November - 31st March)
Entry fee: 11 EUR (20 EUR - ticket valid for 36 hours for both sites Herculaneum and Pompeii)
On the same day, before you visit Herculaneum, you can also climb Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that contributed to the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Right at the train station, there is a private company that takes visitors up to the volcano (20 EUR/26 USD). Then, after a short hike, you can admire the crater and the views of the bay of Naples.
What happened in Herculaneum?
In 79 AD, Herculaneum had just recovered from a series of earthquakes preceding the real disaster and the inhabitants, not aware of their fate were living their normal lives. The fertile slopes of Vesuvius provided a great terrain for growing vegetables and fruit. Shops were selling wine, bread and other things, people were enjoying using the public baths, children were playing. And then, suddenly a huge explosion tore the sky and the dark cloud of ashes was thrown out into the air from the core of the mountain. Vesuvius erupted.
People at that time had no idea what was going on. They might have thought that the anger of Gods sent this catastrophe to them. They tried to run away in panic but they had no chances.
The fate of Herculaneum was a little different to the fate of Pompeii. Herculaneum was attacked by the extremely hot surge of gases and ash from Vesuvius very suddenly. In Pompeii, the mud set slowly and tightly around the dead bodies and after they rot away, gaps were formed. Later, scientists filled those gaps with plaster and obtained the exact casts of the people who died during the eruption. In Herculaneum, however, the hot surge rolled down the slope straight through the town carrying debris, hot mud, ashes and toxic gases. The temperature exceeded 500 degrees Celsius (900 degrees Fahrenheit). The soft tissue and muscles of the doomed people evaporated in seconds. Hundreds of burned skeletons were found in the beach area as well as in boat houses where the people were trying to hide.
Herculaneum is one of the few sites in the world where so many so well preserved remains of skeletons were found in one place. It's estimated that the remains of approximately ten percent of the population of Herculaneum were excavated. The people who died following the eruption were of all ages and backgrounds. Thus examining the bones has provided a lot of information about the society in the ancient Roman Empire: What they ate, where they worked and who they were.
Why is Herculaneum so well preserved?
Mount Vesuvius created a one of a kind time-capsule through this awful disaster that happened almost 2000 years ago. Herculaneum was covered by 25 meters (82 feet) thick layer of rock (five times thicker than Pompeii). Ironically, it protected the site from invaders, natural disasters and stopped the natural process of decay. It was discovered by coincidence and the serious excavation works started as late as in the twentieth century. Only one third of the town has been uncovered until now.
Herculaneum - Highly advanced society
By walking down the streets of this ancient town you will be astonished how advanced the civilization was. It was actually not much different than the world as we know one hundred years ago. The houses had a few stories, they were beautifully decorated with frescoes, they were also painted from outside. Marble sculptures, benches, fountains were very common everywhere. The mosaics still glitter with the whole range of colors and were even embellished with real gold. And all of this was of course hand made with no advanced tools.
The town of Herculaneum wasn't the richest in the empire at all and yet it's so imposing. It's believed to have been a kind of a resort for the Roman upper class. However, surprisingly, by examining the bones, it turned out that not only the richest were able to afford a good meal. The diet of ordinary citizens was also sophisticated and it's certain they enjoyed their food. Traces of meat, fish bones, figs, celery seeds, coriander, fennel and even black pepper seeds (that came from India) were found in the remains of the sewage. The Romans had an advanced sewage system as well as running water. They cared about hygiene. Fountains were available literally everywhere and in the part of Herculaneum that was discovered, there are three public baths. Also, there are remains of lead pipes that carried clean water into the houses.
A walk through this ancient town gives you a glimpse of how the Roman Empire really was. Although destroyed by the eruption, Herculaneum and Pompeii are still much better than visiting any museum as the layout of the streets and buildings is now as it was two thousands years ago. Entering the private houses, baths and temples, you can imagine how the ancient people lived, where they shopped and walked. Unforgettable experience.
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