Shipscook’s Italian Job – Herculaneum and Pompeii

Our second trip out from Sorrento was to the Roman towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii, that had been buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in  AD79.

Herculaneum was our first stop and I was delighted to find that since our last visit it now has a new entrance and visitor centre, so you no longer have to dodge lunatic drivers on a very dangerous road and brave some of the very odd people who used to hang around the old entrance waiting for an opportunity to dip your pockets.

The first remains you encounter are the boat houses. These were originally on the sea front and like those on the rest of the site, are remarkably well-preserved.

Boat Houses at Herculaneum

This part of the town was only excavated in the 1980s and it was here that about 300 skeletons were found. Previously it was thought that Herculaneum’s inhabitants  had been successfully evacuated when the volcano began to erupt, but the people in the boat houses and the beach were caught when a 100mph pyroclastic surge of superheated toxic gas and ash swept through the town. Soft tissues were instantly vapourised by the 500 degree Centigrade heat, but the skeletons were preserved in their original positions and then buried by the volcanic deposits. This is of course very useful for archeologists as because the Romans generally practised cremation rather than inhumation we don’t have that many complete Roman skeletons.

Street Herculaneum

The rapidity with which Vesuvius buried the town under 25 metres of volcanic tuff has meant that many of the buildings have been remarkably well-preserved. The intense heat carbonised much of the wood used in the buildings so many interior structures of the buildings which might otherwise have rotted away, have survived,

Interrior of Roman House Herculaneum

along with much of the original fresco work. Herculaneum is believed to have taken its name from the Greek hero Hercules, who is featured in many of the frescos that decorate these seaside homes for wealthy Romans. He’s the one with the tan.

Fresco of Hercules

Along with the homes, shops, bath houses and public buildings have survived, but there is much more waiting to be found beneath the streets of modern Ercolano.

From Herculaneum we headed for it’s more famous neighbour Pompeii.

Forum Pompeii

When Vesuvius erupted Pompeii’s fate was to be buried under four to six metres of pumice. Most of the casualties here died from suffocation caused by toxic gas from the volcano. Their bodies engulfed by the falling ash eventually rotted away leaving a  hollow cast. It was the archeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli working in the 1860s who worked out that if you poured plaster into this mould and it would leave a perfect impression of the person who had been there and there are a few of these casts on display in Pompeii today.

Cast of Boy Pompeii

This fellow appears to be trying to protect his mouth from the noxious fumes. The archeologists still do this today only with clear resin so tat any material like bone or metal can be seen.

When the city was initially excavated in the 18th and 19th centuries there was a lot of fuss and bother about some of the street iconography.

This way to the fun house?

Not being constrained by Christian morality, the Romans were a lot more up front about sexual imagery. It has been speculated that the phalluses cast into the walls showed the way to brothels, but they are more likely to be fertility symbols placed in the building for good luck. However Pompeii is famous for the lewd paintings in its brothels which acted as a menu of delights in that multicultural and mostly illiterate society, and up until the 1960s these were kept under wraps for serious students and people of the correct moral fibre only. I saw them back on our visit in 2002 and was disappointed that we didn’t have enough time to see them again.

Bronze Satyr Pompeii

However we did have a good two hours to wander the wheel rutted cobbles of old Pompeii seeing the many shop fronts, temples and public buildings. I even got a drink from a Roman fountain,

One of the few free drinks I got in Italy

though thankfully the original lead plumbing had been replaced. which takes me back to the skeletons found in Herculaneum. When these were examined significant deposits of lead were found in the bones, proving that although there was a lot to be said in favour of Roman plumbing, if you lived long enough the lead from the pipes that transported the water from the aqueducts to the drinking fountains in the town would eventually poison you.

We booked this trip online before we left. Thomson’s price was £37.50 plus entry to the two sites €20 for a joint ticket, plus the indifferent special lunch, an expensive €13 for a margarita pizza and some rotgut wine.

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