British Museum blog

Herculaneum: the unknown city

Herculaneum: the unknown city Vanessa Baldwin, exhibition project curator, British Museum

For many people visiting the exhibition, Life and Death Pompeii and Herculaneum, it may be the first time they have encountered the smaller city which lay west of Mount Vesuvius.

General view of Herculaneum with Vesuvius in the background © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

General view of Herculaneum with Vesuvius in the background © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

While Pompeii became a household name, immortalised in books, television and cinema, Herculaneum has remained relatively unknown in popular culture. In the exhibition we felt it was important to show why Herculaneum is just as important as its famous neighbour. The cities were destroyed by the same catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, yet at different times and under different circumstances. For these reasons Herculaneum differed from Pompeii, not only in its life as a smaller coastal city, but also in the incredible things that were preserved there. As a result it has different stories to tell.

Herculaneum was actually the first of the two cities to be re-discovered in the eighteenth century. In 1710 a well-digger chanced upon the theatre, where later finds included the bronze statue of the wealthy ex-slave and city benefactor, Lucius Mammius Maximus.

Bronze statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Bronze statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Herculaneum was buried much deeper by the volcano than Pompeii, more than 20 metres in some areas, so the first explorations of the site were carried out by tunnelling through the hardened ash. Pompeii, on the other hand, was only buried by about 4 metres of ash in some places. This meant that in the months following the eruption people returned to the city to salvage statues, building materials and whatever else they could find. However, it also meant that when Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, it was possible to excavate large areas relatively easily. Visitors preferred to wander the open-air streets, houses and public buildings of Pompeii, than clamber down dangerous tunnels in Herculaneum. So although many of the most impressive discoveries, such as the bronze and marble statues from the Villa of the Papyri, were made in Herculaneum, it was Pompeii that attracted the tourists. As Pompeii became the focus of the excavations of the Bourbon kings of Naples, the tunnels of Herculaneum were filled in and interest in the site waned until open-air excavations began years later. The creation of plaster casts of the victims of Pompeii by Giuseppe Fiorelli in the 1860s sealed its fate as the city which set imaginations alight.

Herculaneum was also the first of the two cities to be destroyed in AD 79. The initial surge of superheated ash, rock and gas, following the collapse of the 20 mile high cloud ejected by Mount Vesuvius, raced towards Herculaneum and wiped it out in an instant. The temperature during the eruption is could have reached 450°C in Herculaneum, which meant that organic material, like wood and foodstuffs, were preserved. At these temperatures, and encased in volcanic material which rapidly compacted and hardened to rock, wood did not burn, but was instantly carbonised – turned to charcoal. At Pompeii, where temperatures may only have reached a cooler 350°C, organic material has very rarely survived. It is Herculaneum that has yielded the furniture, the straw baskets and the loaves of bread.

Carbonised furniture and food © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Carbonised furniture and food © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

The archaeological site open to visitors today presents a striking scene: lying metres below the current ground level, with the modern town of Ercolano perching above it and Vesuvius still looming in the background. There are two-storey buildings, wooden doors, staircases and even racks holding amphorae, still in situ. Once an ordinary city of the Roman empire, its destruction and preservation have made it an extraordinary place which truly deserves the same renown as its counterpart.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is at the British Museum until 29 September 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Tweet using #PompeiiExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum,

14 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. ritaroberts says:

    How interesting !. There is always one site in particular which gets all the attention. So pleased Herculaneum is receiving the attention now. Thanks for this fascinating post.

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  2. Heulwen Renshaw says:

    This is most interesting, thank you. I feel like flying over to see this fascinating place for myself.

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  3. Krystyna says:

    For more information about Herculaneum visit http://www.herculaneum.ox.ac.uk. The Friends of Herculaneum Society is dedicated to supporting research and public awareness of the site. We are supporting the talk on Fri 31 May at the British Museum to be given by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill on ‘New Discoveries in Herculaneum’.

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  4. Margaret Bentovim says:

    This is a wonderful exhibition and Pompeii and Herculaneum are wonderful places to visit. I would also suggest a visit to Oplontis, its small scale and wonderful remains make it breath taking.

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  5. Jan says:

    Thanks for this! I didn’t realise the mismatch between the number of finds and the public perceptions … I saw a footage of an archaeologist in those tunnels in Herculaneum last night – I can understand how claustrophobic they must be! Great exhibition in London, though, really wonderful, and I love looking through the smaller book on sale, with details of each find.

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  6. Herculaneum is amazing, what a great exhibit! Herculaneum is also just as interesting as Pompeii but with half the tourists!

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  7. chris leversha says:

    When I was last there they were speculating that they may have found the entrance to the forum which was predicted to lay underneath the entrance ramps? Do you know if there has been any developments on this, as going back in July and would be good see any progress!

    Awesome site though and much more intricate than Pompeii!

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  8. Doug F says:

    I first saw Herculaneum in 1969 while I was in the American Army. I was unaware of it until I took a USO tour out of Naples to Vesuvius. My friend and I determined that we wanted to go back there. We did some checking and found that the bus from the waterfront would take us right to the entrance. I’ve been ever thankful that we made the effort. I have wanted to go back after hearing about the discoveries made there since then but now it won’t happen because of my health. If you do get the chance go to Herculaneum. Figure on at least a day there.

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    • Vanessa Baldwin says:

      Thank you for sharing your story, I imagine you were one of few people to have made the effort to get to Herculaneum at that time. It’s a special site and I’m glad it made such an impression on you. What a shame you’re unable to make a trip back, but I hope you’re enjoying reading about it in all of the articles related to the exhibition.
      With best wishes, Vanessa.

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  9. fatch53aul says:

    Why so expensive for unemployed persons and students ? The cost equates to nearly 20% of a weeks unemployment allowance and grant. Very unfair. Why is this ?

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    • For the exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum there is a jobseekers ticket for £1 on Mondays between 12.00 – 16.30, as well as a discounted rate at all other times. The Museum is always looking for ways to make temporary charging exhibitions more accessible (the £1 jobseeker ticket is a special arrangement for this exhibition made possible through the exhibition sponsors, for instance) and the Museum also offers a range of other concessions including a students 2 for 1 ticket deal on weekdays after 14.30, seniors get half price tickets on Monday afternoons, and children under 16 go free. More information about ticket prices can be found on the website here:
      http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/pompeii_and_herculaneum/tickets.aspx

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  10. artmoscow says:

    One of the best exhibitions I’ve been to lately – one of those rare cases when you go from one exhibit to another, and you don’t want to skip anything. Some things have been a complete aesthetic revelation. Thank you!

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  11. Pia Paganelli says:

    Thank you for the above information about Herculaneum – it is really interesting. I am planning a visit to Italy for next year and will definitely make time to visit this historic site

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