Herculaneum (in modern Italian Ercolano) is an ancient Roman town, located in the territory of the current commune of Ercolano. Its ruins can be found at the co-ordinates , in the Italian region of Campania.
It is most famous for having been lost, along with Pompeii, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius beginning on August 24, 79 AD, which buried them in superheated pyroclastic material that has solidified into volcanic tuff. Since the discovery of bones in 1981, some 150 skeletons have been found. Herculaneum was a smaller town with a wealthier population than Pompeii at the time of its destruction.
Ancient tradition connected Herculaneum with the name of the Greek hero Herakles (Hercules in Latin and consequently Roman Mythology), an indication that the city was of Greek origin. In fact, it seems that some forefathers of the Samnite tribes of the Italian mainland founded the first civilization on the site of Herculaneum at the end of the 6th century BC. Soon after, the town came under Greek control and was used as a trading post because of its proximity to the Gulf of Naples. It is the Greeks who named the city Herculaneum. In the 4th century BC, Herculaneum again came under the domination of the Samnites. The city remained under Samnite control until it became a Roman municipium in 89 BC, when, having participated in the Social War ("war of the allies" against Rome), it was defeated by Titus Didius, a legate of Sulla.
After the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the town of Herculaneum was buried under approximately 20 meters (50-60 feet) of lava, mud and ash. It lay hidden and nearly intact for more than 1600 years until it was accidentally discovered by some workers digging a well in 1709. From there, the excavation process began but is still incomplete. Today, the Italian towns of Ercolano and Portici lie on the approximate site of Herculaneum. Until 1969 the town of Ercolano was called Resina, and it changed its name to Ercolano, the Italian modernization of the ancient name in honour of the old city.
The inhabitants worshipped above all Hercules, who was believed to be the founder of both the town and Mount Vesuvius. Other important deities worshiped include Venus, who was believed to be Hercules' lover, and Apollo.
At around 1 PM on August 27, Vesuvius began spewing ash and volcanic stone thousands of meters into the sky. When it reached the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the top of the cloud flattened leading Pliny to describe it to Tacitus as a stone pine tree. The prevailing winds at the time blew towards the southeast which caused the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city of Pompeii and the area surrounding it. Since Herculaneum lay to the west of Vesuvius, it was only mildly affected by the first phase of the eruption. While the roofs in Pompeii collapsed under the weight of the falling debris, only a few centimeters of ash fell on Herculaneum causing little damage. This was enough to cause many of the inhabitants to flee, however.
It was long thought that nearly all of the inhabitants managed to escape because initial excavations revealed only a few skeletons. It wasn't until 1982, when the excavations reached boat houses on the beach area, that this view changed. In 12 boat houses archaeologists discovered 250 skeletons huddled close together.
During the night, the column of volcanic debris which had risen into the stratosphere began falling back down onto Vesuvius. A pyroclastic flow formed that sent a mixture of 400°C (750°F) gas, ash, and rock racing down at toward Herculaneum. At about 1 AM it reached the boat houses, where those waiting for rescue were killed instantly by the intense heat. This flow and several more following it slowly filled the city's buildings from the bottom up, causing them little damage.
The amazingly good state of preservation of the structures and their contents is due to three factors:
Excavation began at modern Ercolano in 1738. The elaborate publication of Le Antichità di Ercolano ("The Antiquities of Herculaneum") under the patronage of the King of the Two Sicilies had an effect on incipient European Neoclassicism out of all proportion to its limited circulation; in the later 18th century, motifs from Herculaneum began to appear on stylish furnishings from decorative wall-paintings and tripod tables to perfume burners and teacups. However, excavation ceased once the nearby town of Pompeii was discovered, which was significantly easier to excavate due to the reduced amount of debris covering the site (four meters as opposed to Herculaneum's twenty meters). In the twentieth century, excavation once again resumed in the town. However, many public and private buildings, including the forum complex, are yet to be excavated.
In 1981, Italian public works employees, under the direction of Dr. Giuseppe Maggi, found bones at the Herculanium site while digging a drainage trench. Italian officials, at Dr. Maggi's urging, called in Sara C. Bisel, a physical anthropologist from the United States, to oversee the excavation and study the bones. This research was funded with a grant from the National Geographic Society.
Until this discovery, there were few Roman skeletal remains available for academic study, as Ancient Romans regularly practiced cremation. Excavations in the port area of Herculaneum, which initially turned up more than 55 skeletons: 30 adult males, 13 adult females and 12 children. The skeletons were found on the seafront, where it is believed they had fled in an attempt to escape the volcanic eruption. This group includes the 'Ring Lady' (image at right, by National Geographic photographer Lou Mazzatenta), named for the rings on her fingers.
Through the chemical analysis of those remains, Dr. Bisel was able to gain greater insight into the health and nutrition of the Herculaneum population. Quantities of lead were found in some of the skeletons, which led to speculation of lead poisoning. The physical examination of the bones yielded additional information. The presence of scarring on the pelvis, for instance, gave some indication of the number of children a woman had borne.
To expand this section, translate Scavi archeologici di Ercolano.
The buildings at the site are grouped in blocks (insulae), defined by the intersection of the east-west (cardi) and north-south (decumani) streets.
Hence we have Insula II - Insula VII running anti-clockwise from Insula II. To the east are two additional blocks: Orientalis I (oI) and Orientalis II (oII). To the south of Orientalis I (oI) lies one additional group of buildings known as the 'Suburban District' (SD).
Individual buildings having their own entrance number. For example, the House of the Deer is labelled (Ins IV, 3).
The atrium is covered, so lacks the usual impluvium. It retains its original flooring of opus tesselatum and opus sectile. Off the atrium is a biclinium richly decorated with frescoes in the fourth style and a large triclinium which originally had a marble floor. A number of other rooms, one of which is the apsed alcove after which the house was named, can be reached via a hall which gets its light from a small courtyard.
The volcanic water, ash and debris covering Herculaneum, along with the extreme heat, left it in a remarkable state of preservation for over 1600 years. However, once excavations began, exposure to the elements began the slow process of deterioration. This was not helped by the methods of archaeology used earlier in the town's excavation, which generally centered around recovering valuable artifacts rather than ensuring the survival of all artifacts. In the early 1980s and under the direction of Dr. Sara C. Bisel, preservation of the skeletal remains became a high priority. The carbonised remains of organic materials, when exposed to the air, deteriorated over a matter of days, and destroyed many of the remains until a way of preserving them was formed.
Today, tourism and vandalism has damaged many of the areas open to the public, and water damage coming from the modern Ercolano has undermined many of the foundations of the buildings. Reconstruction efforts have often proved counterproductive, however in modern times conservation efforts have been more successful. Today excavations have been temporarily discontinued, in order to direct all funding to help save the city.
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