Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sunday in Herculaneum

Ancient Herculaneum, Modern Ercolano, and Vesuvius watching over it all.
When Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79AD (following an 800 year dormant period), the ash fell onto Pompeii, crushing the buildings, burning what could burn, leaving us what is now an overwhelming area of ruins. Pompeii takes a full day to really explore. But head northwest along the coast, and you'll come to modern day Ercolano, home to some of the best preserved 2000 year old ruins in Europe...the ancient city of Herculaneum (actually, the city was built around the 4th century BC). And best of all, these fantastically preserved ruins take only half a day to explore. As a side note, there was a devastating earthquake that rocked this region in 62 AD, and Herculaneum was completely rebuilt after this...only to suffer complete destruction only 17 years later, which really makes one think about the frailties of life and, in order to be a complete Debbie Downer in this blog, how little our material efforts really matter.
Rope found at the seaport
 ...depressed yet? Anyhoo, while Pompeii burned under hot ash, the (wealthier than Pompeii) citizens of Herculaneum headed down to the port for evacuation by sea, taking with them their gold and jewelry. (Yet another side note: this makes me think that guy on TV who hawks gold at every commercial break may really be on to something). Back to topic, again...hours after the initial eruption, a surge of hot gas blasted the town. At 900 degrees, this immediately killed all remaining citizens and carbonized all organic material (such as wood framing in buildings, plants, fabrics, wax tablets, and more interestingly, preserved the joint connections of all the people). Following this blast was a whole bunch of mud (or solid ash) - Nathan has a good analogy: honey flows very slowly at room temperature, but stick the bottle in the microwave, and then out comes this fast-flowing liquid. That's what happened to the top of Vesuvius. Hot air liquified the mud/ash/lava. This is what flowed down in several surges over Herculaneum, burying this carbonized town under 50 feet of tufa (volcanic rocks). There the town remained until about 1709 or so, when it was discovered during the digging of a well shaft. Excavations have taken place on and off since then. Once of the neatest features of ancient Ercolano is that the site goes right up to the edge of the excavated area, around which are tall walls. Immediately on the edge and on up to Vesuvius is the modern town of Ercolano. I enjoyed looking at those apartment buildings and thinking of just what is underneath them...grand villas of wealthy Romans, filled with frescoes, statues, papyri, jewelry, perhaps a few temples, some restaurants, some ancient apartment buildings upon which are sitting the modern ones.

I'm not really sure how often I can use the word "amazing" when I write these blogs, but I'm probably reaching my limit. Yet they'll still come out. Herculaneum is amazing. I visited Pompeii seven years ago, and while it's a wonderful site, it's a whole bunch of ruins. A column or two here where you must then imagine an entire forum, a foundation there to use in imagining the villa it once supported. Herculaneum has buildings, homes, thermal baths that you can actually walk into as if it were a modern city. When you look up, you might just catch a glimpse of the wood framing used within the rock walls. Frescoes are on the walls and you walk upon mosaic floors, giving any HGTV aficionado a great glimpse of the decorating trends of 2000 years ago. We took a photo of Nathan sitting in the "locker room" of the Men's Thermal bath. There was a bathhouse for both the women and the men, complete with a locker room, a cold room, a warm room (sauna), and the hot room. Herculaneum also had a very large gym (palaestra), which included a marvelous fountain of a Hydra (mythical monster that was a many-headed snake) which apparently flowed water all around it into the swimming pool, where young Herculaneumanos would go for their swim practice, which just goes to show that no matter what millennia we're in, people are concerned about working out. Although this gym also contained a fish breeding pond, so the ancient gyms were a little more versatile.

Herculaneum was so well preserved that food was found in pantries and stores. In one home, a loaf of bread was found, and fortuitously, bread was apparently once stamped with one's name; therefore, we now know that the House of the Deers was owned by Q. Granius Verus because this loaf of bread found there had the stamp "Celer, slave of Q. Granius Verus." My mind immediately heads to such hypothetical situations such as: What if Q. Granius Verus sent over his slave, Celer, with a loaf of bread to his new neighbor? I am assuming that the professionals have much better detective skills and subject knowledge to rule out these types of things.
House of Neptune and Amphitrite, so named because of these richly decorated, glass paste, mosaics. This was a personal dwelling.
Nathan hanging out at the Thermopolium (i.e., lunch joint). One such taberna contained the following saying painted upon the wall: "Diogenes, the cynic, in seeing a woman swept away by a river, exclaimed: 'Let one ill be carried away by another.'" Perhaps this particular taberna was an all male establishment.
Grocery Store
Walking the ancient paths

1 comment:

  1. It sounds like you have to be really cultured and/or smart to appreciate Italy, and I'm neither. Can we just eat lots of gelato while I'm there?