Welcome to 79 AD.
Stepping into Ercolano is an experience to behold. Firstly, one is greeted by the modern city of Naples, stretching up on all sides, laundry fluttering in the breeze and cars zipping through narrow streets.
Then ones eyes drift down, seven meters to be exact, from the modern ground level and through volcanic rock to the ancient waterfront resort town of Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian).
Where Pompeii was destroyed through the pomus stones and ash cloud from Vesuvius, the pyroclastic flow combined with a tsunami completely immobilized the very wood of Ercolano and all of its structures. One can walk through the large cobbled streets from the first century AD and look into shops with ceramics and wooden clothing presses.
Pots were left on the stoves of home kitchens, wares left in stock in storefronts, and food left in the Roman fast-food equivalent called thermopolia.
Each of these clues were frozen in time that October in 79 AD, the only written evidence by Pliny the Elder and the letters of Pliny the Younger to his friend Tacitus, who wrote his book on Vesuvius and the happenings of Pompeii, Ercolano, and Oplonti.
Frescos found in Ercolano still maintained their vibrant colors, hinting at the rich families that updated their home styles based on the leading trend. Some preferred the older faux-marble look, with painted plaster to resemble the expensive marble counterpart. The next style was the rich architectural style with deep perspective and gardens painted in between plastered columns. Third came the oriental style of moody colored thirds and a central, powerful image. The last style that came before the eruption of Vesuvius was the fantastical style with depictions of unrealistic architecture and imaginative images (candelabras for columns and fauns dancing around gods).
After the limited accessibility of the excavation of Ercolano and the areas destroyed by the pyroclastic flow, only a corner of Ercolano can be studied. However, the building techniques throughout the city can put a date of the life and growth of Ercolano as well as potential times when earthquakes from Vesuvius required patchwork jobs on parts of walls using opus mixtum, a combination of every-which style that could be conjured at the tip of a hat.
Simply walking through the exuberant and elaborate homes of the wealthy families in Ercolano was humbling! You would walk on ancient mosaic flooring (which both thrilled and horrified my archaeology professor who was leading us through) and be surrounded by all number of garden frescos on walls around the viridarium (garden) and then the stunning layers of food and dishes around the edges of the triclinium (dining room). Outside the fauces (the entrance), were generally some sort of garden with a path of statues, as seen above on the left, and local vegetation, sometimes shaped into a maze for the children of the household to run around in.
This particular image is actually a mosaic. The tiles are so delicate and minuscule that from any distance, it appears to be a painting! As you can see, the colors are simply dazzling, and to think that this is the centerpiece to an inner cement garden… oh and that’s Poseidon on the left.
Looking through the doorways of the Villa of Oplonti, the columns still stand tall, revealing the open aired courtyard beyond. This particular villa was most likely owned by Pompeia at the time of the eruption, but no one has been found to have been present at the estate at the time of the eruption.
There is also a pool larger than an olympic size that was found just behind where I took that photo on the upper left and an absolutely MASSIVE kitchen with four arched stoves (one is considered fancy).
Oh, and here is yet another mosaic’d floor. This time, it is the outer room leading into a spacious bath. The entire scene had numerous sea creatures buzzing about the floor.
The world held its breath when it came to the ancient harbor. In the few boat arches were the inhabitants of Ercolano, mainly women and children, all frozen in their state of terror, piled in together to hopefully be rescued by a boat coming into the port.
Most of the skeletons were originals, untouched and unmoved besides the unburying of them years earlier by archaeologists. A handful were removed and replaced with plaster casts in order to determine their true cause of death and run tests in order to better understand the lives of those living in Campania during that first century and that particular year.
Despite the humbling presence of imminent death, one can bring a sense of appreciation to the streets of Ercolano and take in the rich history that is written in the very stones and frescos that remain for us to experience.
Stashed away in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples lie the remaining pieces of Ercolano and Oplonti that were removed in order to preserve the quality of it, or plundered in 1738 when Carlo III went searching for treasure in the newly discovered resort town.
Also stored in this museum are the Farnese collection of statues and the legendary Secret Cabinet, full of erotic images and sculptures that were quite common in the streets of Roman cities…