Sunday, 29 May 2011


15 May 2011. The Thomson Destiny docks at Naples and we are booked on an excursion to see the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. Like its near neighbour Pompeii, Herculaneum was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in August AD79.

Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum was not subject to the intense rain of heavy ash that brought down the roofs of Pompeii's buildings.

Herculaneum was buried by molten rock from successive pyroclastic flows to a depth of 50-60 feet and Naples was built over it, the builders having forgetten its existence. It was buried deep. I was standing between Herculaneum and the coast on top of today's ground level. Those buildings at the bottom of the photo are boat houses... This point was close enough to the coast then to sail right out. Unfortunately for around 300 people, whose skeletons were found in the boat houses, there were not enough boats for them all to escape.

Whilst sheltered from the direct impact of the surging ash and molten material, the intense heat (around 500 degrees) caused instant death and sucking all moisture from the structures which were then buried and preserved for us to see.

The remains were discovered by builders digging a well over one and a half millenia later, in 1709. Much of the site still lies beneath modern Naples.

A mosaic floor showing Neptune. I couldn't get to the bottom of the artwork and so had to turn the photo upside down to view the image properly. That's why it looks more like a ceiling... The flooring in this building showed sagging and breaks caused by earthquake motion during the eruption. At one point the floor elsewhere in this room had broken, falling into the hypocaust.

The College of the Augustales. In this building with its fresco of Hercules, after whom the town is named, it looked as though the roof had lurched sideways. The top of the fresco leans out and in the adjoining room the top of the wall correspondingly curves inwards.

A stack of amphorae in the remains of a shop.

Some of the buildings have remarkable treasures. Wooden staircases, partitions and doors, albeit somewhat carbonised by the heat of the pyroclastic surge. One room still contains a bed frame.

This would have been a beautiful place to live, with views of the Bay of Naples and the mountain behind. Vesuvius had been inactive for 800 years prior to the AD79 eruption. No one even dreamed of it being a volcano. Few people had any idea that such things existed. It has erupted around 40 times since that fateful day. They say a large eruption is overdue...

Large versions of the photos: at this set at Flickr.

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