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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

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.

    Like

  2. Heulwen Renshaw says:

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

    Like

  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’.

    Like

  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.

    Like

  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.

    Like

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

    Like

  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!

    Like

  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.

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

  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 ?

    Like

    • 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

      Like

  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!

    Like

  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

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,349 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

As part of our #MuseumInstaSwap with @ImperialWarMuseums, we’ve been given special access to the Churchill War Rooms – located deep below the streets of Westminster.
This is Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s bedroom, which includes his private desk, briefcase and papers, his bed and chamber pot and even an original cigar! The bedroom is located close to the Map Room, keeping Churchill as close as possible to the epicentre of Cabinet War Rooms.
Following the surrender of the Japanese Forces the doors to the War Rooms were locked on 16 August 1945 and the complex was left undisturbed until Parliament ensured its preservation as a historic site in 1948. Knowledge of the site and access to it remained highly restricted until the late 1970s when @ImperialWarMuseums began the task of preserving the site and its contents, making them accessible to as wide an audience as possible and opening them to the public in 1984.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap We’re exploring the Churchill War Rooms – the secret underground headquarters of the British government during the Second World War – in partnership with @ImperialWarMuseums for #MuseumInstaSwap.
The fear that London would be the target of aerial bombardment had troubled the government since the First World War and in 1938 the basement of a Whitehall building was chosen as the site for the Cabinet War Rooms. From 1940 to 1945 hundreds of men and women would spend thousands of vital hours here and it soon became the inner sanctum of British government.
Here you can see the wall of the Map Room, detailing the positions of British convoys across the world, which has not changed since 1945! Today in #MuseumInstaSwap we’re beneath the streets of Westminster to discover the hidden secrets of the #WW2 Cabinet War Rooms, which is part of @ImperialWarMuseums.
This is the underground bunker that protected the heart of Britain’s government during the Second World War as Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his inner circle plotted the route to Allied victory. It’s an amazing experience to step back in time and walk in the footsteps of Churchill, glimpsing what life would have been like during the tense days and nights of the Second World War. This archive photo shows Churchill at his desk in the Map Room at the Cabinet War Rooms. Beside him, Captain Pym of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) takes a telephone call. To this day, the Map Room has remained exactly as it was left on the day the lights were switched off in 1945.
© IWM (HU 44788) The collections of the @ImperialWarMuseums present stories of wartime life from many perspectives. During the First World War, hunger seriously affected the civilian populations of all the combatant nations.
Germany introduced numerous government controls on food production and sale, and these rationing cards show how the distribution of essentials such as meat, bread and milk was restricted. But the British naval blockade caused real suffering, even starvation. Serious shortages of food and resources led to price rises, riots and strikes.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap In the First World War Galleries of @ImperialWarMuseums there are many stories of what life was like for ordinary civilians. These ration books show how staple foodstuffs like meat, butter and sugar were carefully distributed in the UK, where hunger caused by naval blockages was a serious threat on the home front.
The government introduced rationing in London early in 1918 and extended it nationwide by the summer. People now got fair shares of food and although supplies were limited, nobody starved. British civilians defied German expectations by accepting this state intrusion into their daily lives.
Discover more stories from London’s museums with #MuseumInstaSwap MuseumInstaSwap Today for #MuseumInstaSwap we’re exploring the fascinating First World War Galleries at @ImperialWarMuseums, to learn more about the impact of the war on ordinary people.
Hunger seriously affected the civilian populations of all the combatant nations. Agriculture and food distribution suffered as a result of the war, and naval blockades reduced food imports, which forced up prices and encouraged hoarding. Governments responded by putting price controls on staple foodstuffs.
Women and children queuing for food became a common sight in cities across Europe. This photograph from the archives of @ImperialWarMuseums shows food queues in Reading, England. The need to queue was lessened when rationing was introduced during 1918.
© IWM (Q 56276)
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,349 other followers

%d bloggers like this: