Visting Herculaneum was one of the highlights of our recent cruise to Croatia, Montenegro, and Italy. Remember when people went on cruises and emerged unscathed, having actually enjoyed themselves? Neither do I, except I know it happened. As recently as October.

The first thing that strikes you on entering the scavi, or archaeological site, is how closely the modern city of Ercolano looms over the ancient city of Heraklion, as the Greeks called it. Mount Vesuvius lurks in the background, a brooding reminder of the source of the 20 metres of volcanic ash that smothered Herculaneum after the eruption in AD79. 

Herculaneum was once a luxurious seaside retreat for the Roman elite. The gated arches you see below were boat sheds facing the ocean. 

During an excavation in the early 1980s, more than 55 skeletons were discovered in the first six of the boat sheds and on the nearby beach.

Earlier excavations had turned up only a few skeletons, so it was assumed that nearly all of the inhabitants of Herculaneum had managed to escape.

Unlike the residents of nearby Pompeii, who were smothered in ash and pumice (shudder), the people of Herculaneum were killed instantly by the intense heat of the volcanic eruption, at temperatures of about 500°C (930°F). From the victims’ postures, it is surmised that the first blast of heat caused instant death (more than a little unpleasant, but quick). 

Further excavations in the 1990s revealed a total of 296 skeletons on the beach and huddled closely together in the twelve arches that faced the sea. The town itself had been almost completely evacuated.

It’s a little hard to envision the sea lapping at the foot of the boat sheds when you see how far below ground level the ancient city now sits. 

Like its neighbouring city Pompeii, Herculaneum is one of only a few ancient cities to be preserved more or less intact. I visited Pompeii many moons ago; it’s much larger, but few of the houses have the same detail as the ones in Herculaneum. Pompeii was buried under a comparatively thin layer of ash, while the mainly pyroclastic material that covered Herculaneum carbonized and preserved more wood in objects such as roofs, beds, and doors, as well as other organic-based materials such as papyrus and food.

Speaking of food, these stone counters were part of an ancient restaurant. And we think marble and granite countertops are up-to-the-minute.

Fires were lighted inside the large clay pots built inside the stone “counters”, so food could be cooked in the heat from the openings at the top. 

The dining area would have been in the space to the left of the counter, and the line cooks, so to speak, would have worked behind the L-shaped area. Isn’t fascinating to realize how much human needs remain the same? People always need to eat, and they like to eat food expertly prepared by professionals (and avoid the clean up).

Two thousand years ago, like now, families preferred to live in their own houses, such as this one.

They needed water for drinking, bathing, and cooking, and many houses had an opening in the roof, the compluvium. (The clear covering is modern, to protect the site from the elements)

This opening allowed water to collect in the impluvium, the sunken part of the atrium, where gaps in the stone floor tiles allowed a substantial amount of the water to filter down through layers of gravel and sand into a holding chamber below ground. The circular stone opening (the thing that looks like a chimney pot) allowed easy access by bucket and rope to the home’s own filtered and naturally cooled water supply. Brita, eat your heart out.

The mod cons don’t end there! Herculaneum also had centralized drainage to collect water from the Forum, house impluviums, latrines and kitchens. The Serino aqueduct, built in the Augustan age, provided potable water through a series of valve-regulated lead pipes laid under the roads. Yes, lead poisoning was an unlooked-for side effect, but apart from that quibble, the Romans were brilliant engineers. Several of the aqueducts built around this time are still feeding Rome with water. Which reminds me – the book Pompeii by Richard Harris is a fabulous novel surrounding the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  From Publisher’s weekly:

“an upstanding Roman engineer rushes to repair an aqueduct in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, which, in A.D. 79, is getting ready to blow its top. Young Marcus Attilius Primus becomes the aquarius of the great Aqua Augusta when its former chief engineer disappears after 20 years on the job. When water flow to the coastal town of Misenum is interrupted, Attilius convinces the admiral of the Roman fleet-the scholar Pliny the Elder to give him a fast ship to Pompeii, where he finds the source of the problem in a burst sluiceway.”

People enjoyed furnishing their homes with beautiful and practical objects, like this marble bench beside the impluvium.

It seems the attraction for animal head decor goes way back.

Privacy for sleeping was a must. Behold the bedroom, complete with bed frame. Needs a little something – perhaps a Euro-top mattress.

These are the original bronze doors in the house, This picture also proves my personal rule of photography – the person with the most brightly coloured outfit will always linger in the middle of your shot, usually with arms upraised, cell phone aloft, taking up the maximum amount of visual space. 

Here is an example of the mosaic tile floors, beautifully decorated with vines and leaves.

Back outside, I noted how logically the streets were laid out, forming a rigid grid pattern. I mentally contrasted this to the winding, twisty streets of English villages, and the medieval hill towns of France and Italy. Construction clearly became more disorderly with time.

There is a sizeable drop from the sidewalk to the street – a very effective deterrent to jaywalkers.

As the straight lines would predict, Herculaneum was indeed set out on a grid pattern of uniform blocks, or insula (plan courtesy of Wikipedia). Though excavations have been going on sporadically since the early 1700s, only part of the city has been excavated to date; the Forum, temples, theatre, numerous houses, and necropolises still await us. How exciting!

The town was surrounded by walls two to three metres thick, made principally with large pebbles, and dating to the second century BC. Within the town itself, the walls were built in a pattern called opus reticulatum in which rectangular tufa blocks (they had one flat end and one pointy end) were placed with the pointed ends into the cement core. The blocks were arranged such that the outward-facing square ends of the tufa blocks formed a diamond pattern, held within the “net” of the mortar lines. Reticulatum is the Latin term for net-like, and opus means “work of art, so the term translates to “net work”.  And this was before broadband! You can see the opus reticulatum pattern in the upper portion of the photograph below – the lower portion has been repaired (more haphazardly).

Although it was smaller than Pompeii, Herculaneum was a wealthier town, reflected in the number of grand and luxurious houses with coloured marble cladding and floors. 

Aren’t they gorgeous?

The deep, rich colours extended to beautifully painted frescoes.

These are found in the College of the Augustales, which was built in Herculaneum while Augustus was still alive.

Below you can see the carbonized wood beams attached to the giant columns, which together supported a flat roof. 

The arch at the back of the room below would have held a statue, likely that of the reigning emperor. You can see the stone plinth for the statue in the centre of the arch.

On the walls to either side of the arch are mythological scenes.

This one on the left shows Hercules entering Mount Olympus, accompanied by Hera, Athena, and Zeus, who is represented as a rainbow.

The scene to the right is that of a dispute between Hercules and the river Achelous over Deianira. 

Higher on the walls are winged chariots. (cue the music for Chariots of Fire)…

How did we find out about Herculaneum in the first place? From people digging wells, it seems. And they got more than they bargained for. “Hey, Hilda. Remember you were looking for some statuary for the garden? I found some!”  Now in a museum in Dresden, two incredible sculptures of Herculaneum Women were recovered in 1709 by the Prince d’Elbeuf in the course of building a villa at nearby Granatello.

Intrigued by local rumours of treasures discovered, the Prince extended his land purchase to include the site of a recently dug well and proceeded to tunnel out from the bottom of the well, retrieving statues and artwork along the way. The most exceptional statues were found at the lowest level, which turned out to be the site of the theatre. The excavation was stopped in 1711 for fear of collapsing the buildings above.

Carrying on with our tour, we come to a relatively small house, but one rich in decor. At the very back of the house, as far removed from the street as possible, was a courtyard with a garden, complete with Nymphaeum, an artificial grotto with a fountain.

The mosaics are truly stunning.

The figures on the back wall are of the sea God Neptune and his wife, Amphitrite.

High up on the walls are these three-dimensional faces. 

They don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves, do they?

Our last stop is the baths. You can see the pillars where some of the surrounding buildings would have been. 

The men’s and women’s baths are intact, and I can’t remember which is which. The grooved ceiling was to allow water to condense and drop back into the bath.

The floor is a bit wobbly (contractors.. can’t trust them to build anything to last..what’s 2000 years, give or take?)

This incredible carved marble basin was in the passageway between the men’s and women’s baths.

The locker room. You can see the stone cubbies up top for bathers’ belongings.

The floor of the locker room features a geometric pattern.

The patterns in the centre of the squares are all different. This one is a checkerboard, referencing games that were played at the time. It seems that checkers (or the equivalent) goes way back!

Sea creatures, such as snails.

Not sure what this is – a lobster?

Back outside we have to hurry a bit now. The ship docked in Sorrento and Herculaneum was a 2-hour bus ride. We need to get back in time to weigh anchor. But a quick trip to the gift shop is in order.  And who do I find?

Dundee’s Italian cousin calmly wedged between two pieces of statuary. That made my day. 

As mentioned, it was something of a flying visit to Herculaneum, and I’m eager to return when we have more time to explore. We were on a fairly large guided tour – not my first choice – but there were limited options. The earpieces we were assigned were less than ideal; it was very difficult to hear the guide, particularly as I was hanging back to allow the crowd to clear so I could take photos. By the time I caught up again, she was either out of range or describing something totally different. A bit frustrating. 

I did not, however, sustain any injuries, unlike my earlier visit to Pompeii. On that trip, I slipped on some gravel toward the end of the day, jamming my big toe completely under my foot and in retrospect, either broke it or strained it very badly. I used some very foul language, particularly as I’d wrecked my pedicure. Glenn, not realizing I was actually in a lot of pain, began joking with me a la Monty Python: “that’s not a limp”. I whacked him soundly with my handbag and seethed gently on our way back to the hotel.

Later that day,  a Scottish couple joined us as we waited for the elevator in our hotel. Observing my toe, now approximately the size and colour of a small aubergine, the woman exclaimed: “What happened to your foot?”. I nodded toward Glenn, turned to the woman and said, “He tried to kill me”.  She looked Glenn up and down before commenting in a broad Scottish accent, “They’re no different on holiday, are they?”  We all burst out laughing. You’ve got to love the Brits for their quick uptake and gallows humour.


Have a happy Sunday, everyone. Like many others, I’m using the downtime to read, catch up on projects long-neglected, and try some new recipes. While the situation is serious, I have strong faith in the human spirit to prevail. We’ve been through trying periods before, and we will again. Humans are a lot more resilient than we give ourselves credit for. Chins up!