Herculaneum is a sister-site to Pompeii; a Roman town buried by the same eruption of Vesuvius which destroyed the larger Pompeii. Partly lying under the modern Naples suburb of Ercolano, the site of Herculaneum hasn’t been fully uncovered and is much smaller and more manageable to visit than Pompeii. Destroyed in a different way, by a pyroclastic surge which killed inhabitants, carbonised wood and left the city buried under 16-25 metres of rock, the archaeological site offers a different kind of insight into the Roman world. Here you’ll still see preserved wooden lofts, wine racks and bedsteads. Most of the furniture – from a baby’s cot to household shrines – is now conserved in storerooms, but a few pieces remain on the site to give an evocative impression of Roman life.
When Vesuvius erupted in AD79, towns, villas and farms around the volcano were destroyed. Pompeii was buried under a layer of ash and pumice which was thinner than the covering over Herculaneum, and some of its residents (or looters) returned after the eruption to salvage valuables and sculptures. Herculaneum was preserved exactly as it was, and the different nature of its destruction has made it fascinating for archaeologists and for visitors. Discoveries of organic matter, of fruit, bread, wooden furnishings, writing tablets, upper floors, and even the contents of sewers, has helped with an understanding of Roman lifestyles and buildings. Herculaneum is thought to have been a relatively well-off small coastal town, quite different to the bigger, urban and more ‘ordinary’ Pompeii.
Herculaneum is much easier to explore than Pompeii. The archaeological site covers a small grid of streets, so it’s simple to cover these in a methodical fashion and keep track of what you’ve seen so far. Practical advice on preparing for a visit and getting to the site can be found below. From the ticket office, looking over the ruins, the nearest part below consists of round arches which were once on the seashore and would have been used for storing goods or boats. This is a good place to start your tour; a ramped passageway leads down and emerges by the arched vaults.
When these arches were excavated in the 1980s, archaeologists discovered what had happened to part of Herculaneum’s population. On the ancient beach and sheltered in the vaults were three hundred skeletons. Most of those under the arches were women and children, with male skeletons found on the shore outside. Perhaps they were sheltering or perhaps waiting for a deliverance which never came. Some of these bones are still preserved in-situ and are a poignant way to begin your exploration of a town whose life was cut off so suddenly on a summer’s day.
Once you’ve entered the ancient streets, as long as you have time I’d suggest just working your way around from one side of the site to the other. The site is basically composed of three streets heading north-east to south-west (at right angles to the seashore arches), with two streets crossing them. If you are in a hurry, there is a cluster of important and characteristic buildings towards the far end of the central street, and in the block which is then on your left.
There are a number of highlights to look out for at Herculaneum, and if you are feeling studious, a bit of advance preparation will give you the chance to compile your own personal list of must-sees. The BBC made an excellent 2013 documentary with Herculaneum expert Andrew Wallace-Hadrill called The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum (available on BBC iPlayer if it’s been repeated recently, otherwise try YouTube or buy from Amazon) which makes a good primer before a visit.
Buildings at Herculaneum are labelled with a number and a name in Italian, which you can then look up using the site guide booklet or audio-guide. General features to look out for as you explore include the chances to see wooden upper floors, parts of decorative ceilings and wooden fittings such as racks for wine amphorae. Several handsome public water fountains, consisting of a tap hole, sculpted decorations and a trough, give an idea of the city’s practicalities and the civic pride its residents may have felt. On the central street (Cardo IV) a sign hanging between two buildings marks out the properties’ boundaries and owners. You can peer into shops, bars and bakeries and sometimes enter them; big stone vases set into worktops would have contained the food served up to customers who in Roman times would have obtained many of their meals out of the home. Many of the grander dwellings in the town had shops built into their street-facing façades, but once inside you enter a far more refined world where an imposing atrium or courtyard might be ornamented with a central pool, paintings around the walls and mosaics on the floor. The surviving exterior doesn’t always give a clue as to what treasures may remain inside, so poke around in all the buildings you have time to enter.