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Herculaneum

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East of Naples the first real point of any interest is the town of Ercolano, the modern offshoot of the ancient site of HERCULANEUM, which was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD, and is situated at the seaward end of the town’s main street. The site of Herculaneum was discovered in 1709, when a well-digger accidentally struck the stage of the buried theatre. Excavations were undertaken throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which period much of the marble and bronze from the site was carted off to Naples to decorate the city’s palaces, and it wasn’t until 1927 that digging and preservation began in earnest. Herculaneum was a residential town, much smaller than Pompeii, and as such it makes a more manageable site, less architecturally impressive but better preserved and more easily taken in on a single visit. Archeologists held for a long time that unlike in Pompeii, on the other side of the volcano, most of the inhabitants of Herculaneum managed to escape. However, recent discoveries of entangled skeletons found at what was the shoreline of the town suggest otherwise, and it’s now believed that most of the population was buried by huge avalanches of volcanic mud, which later hardened into the tufa-type rock that preserved much of the town so well. In early 2000 the remains of another 48 people were found; they were carrying coins, which suggests they were attempting to flee the disaster.

The site

After the ticket office, but before you enter the city proper, there is a new pavilion housing the remains of a boat which archeologists have surmised was thrown onto the beach by the force of the earthquake and smashed against the ruins of houses. As well as the boat, and a serpent prow, finds include a coil of rope and a leather sheet (with signs of stitching) fused to scorched wooden planks.

Because Herculaneum wasn’t a commercial town, there was no central open space or forum, just streets of villas and shops, cut as usual by two very straight main thoroughfares that cross in the centre. Start your tour just inside the entrance at the bottom end of Cardo III, where you’ll see the House of the Argus (Casa d’Argo) on the left, a very grand building judging by its once-impressive courtyard – although upstaged by the so-called Hotel (Casa del Albergo) across the street, which covers a huge area, though you can only really get a true impression of its size from the rectangle of stumpy columns that made up its atrium.

Cardo IV

Further up, Cardo III joins the Decumanus Inferiore, just beyond which is the large Thermae or bath complex on the corner of Cardo IV – the domed frigidarium of its men’s section decorated with a floor mosaic of dolphins, its caldarium containing a plunge bath and a scallop-shell apse. Still intact are the benches where people sat and the wooden, partitioned shelves for clothing. On the far side of the baths, the House of Neptune and Amphitrite (Casa di Nettuno ed Anfitrite) holds sparklingly preserved and richly ornamental wall mosaics. Adjacent is the House of the Beautiful Courtyard (Casa del Bel Cortile) where skeletons of bodies still lie in the positions they fell. From here you can stroll back down to the seaward end of Cardo IV, where the House of the Wooden Partition still has its original partition doors (now under glass).

Cardo V

Turning right at the top of Cardo IV takes you around to Cardo V and most of the rest of the town’s shops – including a baker’s, complete with ovens and grinding mills, a weaver’s, with loom and bones, and a dyer’s, with a huge pot for dyes. Behind the ones on the left you can see the Palestra, where public games were held, opposite which there’s a well-preserved Taverna with counters and, further down Cardo V on the right, another tavern, the Taverna del Priapo, with a priapic painting behind its counter.

Further down Cardo V, the House of the Deer (Casa dei Cervi) was another luxury villa, its two storeys built around a central courtyard and containing corridors decorated with richly coloured still-lifes. From here, the end of Cardo V, the path descends under a covered passageway down to the so-called Suburban Baths on the left: one of the most impressive – and intact – structures in Herculaneum, complete with extremely well-preserved stuccowork and a pretty much intact set of baths; it also has a complete original Roman door, the only one in Herculaneum that wasn’t charred by fire.

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