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Herculaneum (known in Italy as Ercolano) is an ancient Roman town situated on the outskirts of Naples - it was buried by ash falling and subsequent lava flows after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.
Less well known than Pompeii, Herculaneum is another important Roman town destroyed by the same eruption of Mount Vesuvius that has also been extensively excavated and is very revealing of the town 'frozen in time' 2000 years ago (although substantially smaller than the excavations at Pompeii).
Since the town takes its name from Hercules, from the Greek god Herakles, it is belived the town actually was an Ancient Greek town as far back as the 6th century BC.
Excavation of Herculaneum
The history of the excavation of Herculaneum has not always been a happy one, and early 19th century excavations exposed many interesting features and frescoes that have since disappeared. Likewise many excavated items seem also to have disappeared or been subject to investigation that led to their destruction.
Happily scientific techniques have improved a great deal in recent decades and work now proceeds more slowly - in fact often not at all, since funds are not available - but more carefully.
The work at Herculaneum is still very much a 'work in progress' and there is a great deal remaining to be excavated, a task not made easier by the very thick layer of ash and volcanic material that covered the site (20 metres thick, which is five times thicker than the debris that submerged Pompeii).
Herculaneum buildings and sites
Several houses, varying from grand townhouses to more humble lodgings, have been revealed in varying condition and it is possible to see many intact rooms and walls, frescoes and decorative mosaic floors and to walk along the original cobbled streets that passed between the properties.
Another highlight is the well preserved Roman Baths complex with the original mosaic floored marble baths surrounded by various carvings and murals.
One of the most unexpected discoveries at Herculaneum is the Villa of the Papyri, once home to Julius Caesar's father in law and a grand villa leading to the sea.
The name of Villa Papyri comes from the many written scrolls that have been discovered in the library of the house. Scientists are working on deciphering these but is is complicated because the scrolls were damaged by the heat and don't react well to being unrolled - so it is necessary to read them without unrolling them...not very easy!
There are also many 'small' highlights that add significantly to your visit - for example, the shops still have some of their fittings and the baths their wooden shelving, and remains of lead water pipes can be seen, small features that help to make it easier to see Herculaneum as a 'living town' rather than an archaeolgical site.
Skeletons at Herculaneum
Herculaneum is also known for the skeleton remains that have been found nearby on the sea front, which are believed to bee remains of people attempting to escape the lava flows.
These finds are important because the Romans usually cremated their dead, so skeletons are very unusual. Numerous of these skeletons have been found, and have proved effective at revealing more about the lives of citizens in Ancient Rome such as their dietary habits.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Campania guide.