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Italy 2012: Herculaneum

Eric overlooking Herculaneum

Vesuvius destroyed much more than just the city of Pompeii. The entire region on the South and West side of the volcano was buried in the eruption. Herculaneum lies on the volcano's West side, on the coast of the Tyrrhenian sea. Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried in slightly different ways: Pompeii was buried in falling ash, while the buildings in Herculaneum were filled with rock and ash from the pyroclastic flows (currents of superheated gas and rock fragments flowing from the volcano). This better preserved the upper floors and roofs of the buildings in Herculaneum. Although the ruins of Herculaneum were discovered in the 1700's, excavation was largely abandoned when Pompeii was discovered in 1748 (Pompeii was much closer to the surface, thus more rewarding to excavate). Thus much of Herculaneum remained buried through an era when a shovel might well go through a valuable artifact, interesting frescos would be cut out of the wall and reframed in the discoverer's living room, and erotic frescos would be reburied in shame. I have no doubt that future generations will also view our archaelogical techniques with some distain... nonetheless, it is clear that Herculaneum was well served by being ignored for a couple of extra centuries.

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House of Aristides (or maybe south part of House of Argus)

Much of Europe was experiencing record heat while we were in Italy, including Italy. Eric ducks into a shadow to look at the map and figure out where we are... which, it turns out, is in the House of Aristides, a building named for a statue of Aeschines, a Greek statesmen who was considered one of the best oraters of classical Greece, who was mis-identified as Aristides, a Greek politician. The pumice incorportated into the wall to the left provides a subtle portent of the town's fate.

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House of Argus

A bit of charred wood in a corner of the House of Argus, names for a fresco depicting Argus, the servant of Hera who was charged with guarding the white heifer Io from Zeus. The fresco is no more, along with the 2nd story of the building, both excavated in the 1700's and lost when the excavations were abandoned in the 1800's. When it was found, the upper floor contained a pantry with flour and unbaked loaves of bread, as well as jars of olives, almonds, and fruit. The wood was carbonized by the heat of the blast, but buried quickly enough that there wasn't enough oxygen to burn.

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House of Argus - Exedra

There is a bit of fresco remaining in the exedra (no, not a misspelling of etcetera... it's a small pocket built into a wall). Here we can see the current approach to preservation: the roof used to rest on timbers set into the wall. There are still bits of charred wood in the clay-lined holes. Rather than reconstruct the roof as it was, which would require removing the bits of charcoal, a new layer of stone has been added to the walls, in the style of the ancient walls but clearly separate from it, and a new roof built into that.

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lizard

Lizard!

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excavation

Many areas of Herculaneum have not been excavated. It is believed that the main part of town, including its forum, are probably still buried.

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sunlight in small building to the north of the central baths

The view out of the door is probably pretty close to what the resident of this small building would've seen 2000 years ago. This photo also shows where and how the ceiling of the ground floor/floor of the upper story would've been constructed.

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College of the Augustales

Eric studies the frescoes of the sacellum (shrine) in the College of the Augustales, believed to be the Collegium Augustalium (center for the cult of Emporer Augustus) in Herculaneum. This is one of the best-preserved of the buildings that were open in our visit.

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fresco in the sacellum of the College of the Augustales

The sacellum is decorated with frescos in the fourth style, meaning that the wall is divided into zones, with a central image (often panoramas or narrative scenes) and use of perspective. In this case, the image is of Hercules next to Juno and Minerva. Painted doors on either side make use of perspective, with winged Victories driving chariots on pedastals above.

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Cardo V

Cardo V. Cardo means a north-south street, this is the easternmost one in the current excavations. This street gives the haunting impression of a Western ghost town... as if the residents just stepped away for a while, and, sometime, might return, do a bit of sweeping up, and move back in. The wood under the awnings is original, although it is now carefully held together by wire and supported by beams. The wooden door frames are often still in place on this street as well.

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Cardo V

The other side of Cardo V, with the House of the Relief of Telephus, the Palestra, and the Pistrinum (bakery... think pastry) of Sex. Patulcus Felix (who left a ring behind with his name inscribed, allowing us to identify his bakery).

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Cucumas shop

This sign advertises wine (indicated by the jugs) and a show playing (indicated by the letters NOLA) and apparently (although I can't see it in this photo) the name of the playwright: Aprilis a Capua.

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Eric looking down the Decumano Inferiore

Eric looking down the Decumano Inferiore (Lower East-West street), with some buildings of modern Ercolano in the distance.

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Beautiful floor of the House of the Beautiful Courtyard

In the rare cases where the US has something old-ish, it's always roped off, behind glass, or only viewable through telescopes that cost a quarter to use. Europe tends to be more relaxed about it. Sometimes there's a balding velvet cord suggesting that you should keep a respectful few inches distance, but usually they just trust you to mind your manners around ancient things. In Italy, though, history is not so much something they have as something that permeates every corner of the country. Pizza shops will be casually using a 400-year-old oven, buildings have columns incorporated into the walls, farms will have a bit of aquaduct in some corner of the field... and you can walk on the mosaic floors at Herculaneum. Some are replicas, but some are not. There is an ongoing debate over the balance between preserving the past and letting people experience it. Nonetheless, we found ourselves tiptoeing over the 2000-year-old mosaic floor in the House of the Beautiful Courtyard, trying not to disturb whatever flakes of volcanic dust may remain in the seams.

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*For anyone trying to follow the route: The Circumvesuviana has two lines that go to the modern train station of Ercolano Scavi, the Napoli-Sorrento route and the Napoli-Poggiomarino route. The ruins are about a half-kilometer walk downhill, straight down the Via IV Novembre. A big archway marks the entrance to the park, you go through this archway, across a bridge overlooking the ruins, and past a small garden to get to the ticket office.

to Herculaneum pg 2
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