Herculaneum, another stop on the road less traveled
Image via Richard Dietrich.
Continuing our series on less-traveled Italian destinations, we should look at the ancient Roman town that lives in the shadow of Pompeii: Herculaneum (Ercolano, in Italian).
The devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius on that fateful August afternoon on 79 A.D. did not focus its wrath solely on Pompeii. There were neighboring towns that were equally devastated and Herculaneum is an amazing, perhaps overlooked example.
While the buildings of Pompeii and its inhabitants were destroyed mostly by the first stage of the eruption, the population of Herculaneum was spared at this point. The heavy debris and ash that caused the collapse of so many buildings of Pompeii only lightly rained down on Herculaneum, resulting in an evacuation of almost the entire town toward the sea. The later flow of ash and hot gasses slowly filled the buildings from the ground up. Because of this, the structures of the town are remarkably well-preserved.
Once the excavations reached the shore, however, the fate of several hundred members of the population was discovered. A subsequent heat surge sometime in the middle of the night blew through the area and instantaneously killed the people who had taken shelter in the boat houses. Their bodies were carbonized which, along with the debris burial, helped to perfectly preserve the skeletal remains. This was an exciting find for scientists because Romans practiced cremation, rendering typical remains unsuitable for investigation. The unfortunate end of the Ercolani gave forensic investigators the opportunity to glean information such as diet, disease, childbirth, as well as how they died. It was an unprecedented look into the daily life of ancient Romans.
Up to this point, the main cause of death was thought to be suffocation. But, upon further examination of the Ercolani, scientists were able to surmise that it was indeed a pyroclastic surge that was the most deadly aspect of the eruption. Because of the tragic demise of the people of Herculaneum, the entire world has a more detailed account of this catastrophic event that happened almost 2 millennia ago.
If you would like to visit this beautifully preserved Roman town, it is just a 25 minute train ride from Naples on the Circumvesuviana. You won’t have to fight hordes of tourists unloading from multiple buses, as the infrastructure around the area gives little access to major traffic.