Herculaneum: the unknown city
For many people visiting the exhibition, Life and Death Pompeii and Herculaneum, it may be the first time they have encountered the smaller city which lay west of Mount Vesuvius.
While Pompeii became a household name, immortalised in books, television and cinema, Herculaneum has remained relatively unknown in popular culture. In the exhibition we felt it was important to show why Herculaneum is just as important as its famous neighbour. The cities were destroyed by the same catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, yet at different times and under different circumstances. For these reasons Herculaneum differed from Pompeii, not only in its life as a smaller coastal city, but also in the incredible things that were preserved there. As a result it has different stories to tell.
Herculaneum was actually the first of the two cities to be re-discovered in the eighteenth century. In 1710 a well-digger chanced upon the theatre, where later finds included the bronze statue of the wealthy ex-slave and city benefactor, Lucius Mammius Maximus.
Herculaneum was buried much deeper by the volcano than Pompeii, more than 20 metres in some areas, so the first explorations of the site were carried out by tunnelling through the hardened ash. Pompeii, on the other hand, was only buried by about 4 metres of ash in some places. This meant that in the months following the eruption people returned to the city to salvage statues, building materials and whatever else they could find. However, it also meant that when Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, it was possible to excavate large areas relatively easily. Visitors preferred to wander the open-air streets, houses and public buildings of Pompeii, than clamber down dangerous tunnels in Herculaneum. So although many of the most impressive discoveries, such as the bronze and marble statues from the Villa of the Papyri, were made in Herculaneum, it was Pompeii that attracted the tourists. As Pompeii became the focus of the excavations of the Bourbon kings of Naples, the tunnels of Herculaneum were filled in and interest in the site waned until open-air excavations began years later. The creation of plaster casts of the victims of Pompeii by Giuseppe Fiorelli in the 1860s sealed its fate as the city which set imaginations alight.
Herculaneum was also the first of the two cities to be destroyed in AD 79. The initial surge of superheated ash, rock and gas, following the collapse of the 20 mile high cloud ejected by Mount Vesuvius, raced towards Herculaneum and wiped it out in an instant. The temperature during the eruption is could have reached 450°C in Herculaneum, which meant that organic material, like wood and foodstuffs, were preserved. At these temperatures, and encased in volcanic material which rapidly compacted and hardened to rock, wood did not burn, but was instantly carbonised – turned to charcoal. At Pompeii, where temperatures may only have reached a cooler 350°C, organic material has very rarely survived. It is Herculaneum that has yielded the furniture, the straw baskets and the loaves of bread.
The archaeological site open to visitors today presents a striking scene: lying metres below the current ground level, with the modern town of Ercolano perching above it and Vesuvius still looming in the background. There are two-storey buildings, wooden doors, staircases and even racks holding amphorae, still in situ. Once an ordinary city of the Roman empire, its destruction and preservation have made it an extraordinary place which truly deserves the same renown as its counterpart.
Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is at the British Museum until 29 September 2013.
The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.
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