A Visit to Herculaneum, An Ancient City Buried for 1,700 Years

Grand Circle Travel included five free days into our 17 day tour of Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. On those days we can head out on our own or, we can participate in one of the “optional” tours they offer. This past Saturday, I was tempted to skip the optional tour of Herculaneum (one of the cities left in ruin after Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD) since Pompeii was already a scheduled site for our trip. In the end I decided to do both and I’m glad I did. We toured Pompeii today and if I had to choose between the two ancient cities, Herculaneum would be my fave.

This is the view of the excavated Herculaneum as we approached on foot. Established around 6th century BC, Herculaneum was completely buried under 20 meters (50-60 feet) of ash and mud after Mt. Vesuvius erupted. The people who were still living here (many had fled in year’s past due to frequent earthquakes) were killed instantly from the super high temperatures (500+ degrees fahrenheit) that reached the city.

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It gave me chills standing here surveying the ruins of Herculaneum, with Mt. Vesuvius, the mountain/volcano responsible for all this destruction, clearly visible in the background just six miles away.

City built above Herculaneum Ruins

 

We walked across a bridge and right into the ruins themselves. The feelings that come over you as you cross into this once buried and lost city are difficult to put into words. I felt some of the same feelings I do when touring beautiful old historic homes, a feeling of connection and respect for those who walked those same paths so many years before. In this case, it was 2,000 years before!

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Herculaneum remained hidden, and mostly intact until it was discovered accidentally during the early 1700s when wells and underground tunnels were being dug. The towns of Ercolano and Portici currently exist atop Herculaneum with 75% of Herculaneum still hidden underneath these two towns.

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It’s a shame they aren’t able to excavate the rest of the city. Maybe one day they’ll be able to.

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The walls of many of the buildings throughout both Herculaneum and Pompeii were constructed as seen below. They created this diamond pattern which was really quite pretty. The guide told us that earthquakes were occurring in this area with more and more frequency and the diamond pattern was more secure and stable for walls. Brick was starting to be used more and more, as well.

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Our guide (wearing white pants with the red umbrella) led us through the streets of Herculaneum. The whole tour was fascinating!

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In some places you can see the deep grooves carved into the road by the wheels of chariots as they made their way down the roads each day. Herculaneum was first settled around the 6th century BC. Per info I found at Wikipedia, the town came under Greek control early on and was used as a trading post because it was located so close to the Gulf of Naples. It was the Greeks who named the city “Heraklion” after the Greek God, Hercules.

Herculaneum Roads with Chariot Tracks and Grooves

 

Our guide took us into some of the homes that once belonged to a few of the well-to-do citizens of Herculaneum. The walls were decorated with colorful murals.

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It’s so amazing that this much color is still left considering the roofs collapsed under all the ash and volcanic material, filling the rooms with ash, volcanic material and dirt for 2,000+ years. The ash kept moisture and other corroding elements from reaching the murals so it actually helped to preserve them. All the wood structures were carbonized by the intense heat. Wherever you see wood, it’s replacement wood added to give support for the remaining structure.

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To create the mosaics, seven layers of plaster were applied to the wall. Then the mosaic was painted quickly atop the seventh or last layer while it was still wet. This had to be done before the final layer dried. You can see Hercules (the darker figure) depicted in the mural below.

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Some of the nicer homes had an outdoor garden room like this one.

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The murals in the garden were truly beautiful!

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The garden room walls were decorated in a mixture of murals and beautiful mosaics. It must have taken a long time to create these mosaics because the tiles were tiny!

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Back out on the street, our guide showed us one of the ways Pompeians could eat on the run or while working. This was their equivalent of “fast food.”

Herculaneum Ruins Tours

 

They could purchase food during the day from vendors who kept the food in the urns/containers below. We were all oohing and aahing over this beautiful countertop. This is all original, exactly as it was excavated from the ashes and mud. What a thrill it must have been for archaeologists when they found this outdoor kitchen/serving area. Do you think our kitchen counters or outdoor kitchens today could withstand an earthquake, a volcanic eruption and being buried under 60 feet of ash, volcanic material and mud for 2,000 years?

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Here’s how the big urns looked down inside…filled with tiny pebbles now, instead of food.

Herculaneum Murals and Architecture

 

I have so many more pictures I could share with you but it’s after 11:30 PM here and I have to be ready by 7:45 tomorrow morning to leave for the Isle of Capri. If you have an interest in seeing more of this ancient city, let me know and I’ll share additional pictures in another post. I also have photos from Pompeii, the buried/excavated city we toured today. If you ever visit this area, you’ll find a lot of the artifacts and statuary recovered from both Herculaneum and from Pompeii in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, another place we toured the day we visited Herculaneum.

City built above Herculaneum Ruins

 

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Comments

  1. Just a few weeks ago I was talking to friends who went there and commented on the marks left by the chariots. Apparently that was something that stuck with them the most.

    To answer your question, no. I doubt laminate would hold up for 2000+ years! But granite and marble would ;).

    I for one would love to see as many pictures as you have time to share Susan. Of course, it can wait until you’re back home but any time you’re in the mood to share I’m waiting!

  2. That is very fascinating! I’m so glad you chose to do both cities. It would be so cool to visit there. I just followed you on Instagram.

  3. Oh, Susan, I can’t believe the variety of scenery and cultures you have been exposed to over your travel these past couple of months! What a thrill it must be to see so much of what this world has to offer. How are you holding up? Are you exhausted or energized? Which do you prefer: an organized tour or one you have planned yourself? You’ve been so gracious in taking us all along on your adventure. Many thanks, again, for expanding our horizons!
    Rosie @ The Magic Hutch

  4. Please share as many photo’s as you can. I am reliving my trip through yours. And learning about areas I did not see like Herculaneum.

  5. I would love to see as many pictures that you have of Herculaneum. It’s so fascinating!

  6. I’d love to see more pictures!
    One of my visits to Atlanta- it’d be super cool to visit you to see ALL your pics/hear all the stories of your trip(s) of late! Guess that makes me the geek who likes to see (some) people’s vacation pics! ; D
    Catherine

  7. Cyndi Raines says:

    More pictures please! Love seeing the ancient cities and the beautiful coast. What a fantastic trip. Hope you’re not bored when you come home -ha.

  8. I’d LOVE to see more pictures and hear about your experiences. We went on a Mediterranean cruise last spring, and part of the trip included Vesuvius and Pompeii. I, too, was struck by the knowledge of what happened there, Vesuvius looming right above us. Pictures never “do it justice.” Being there gave me goosebumps more than once; especially when we saw the casts of the victims, one a pregnant woman. SO SAD! I recall the tracks of chariots, the street vendor areas (their “fast food”), and was fascinated by the beauty of the garden rooms, mosaics, and murals. It’s an incredible place to see, and far more sizable than I expected. We were not able to go to Herculaneum on that trip but I’d love to see that as well. Tours of Pompeii, which is huge, rotate so you can see different areas when you go multiple times. One interesting place was a brothel, where there were “menus” so to speak, murals of choices for the patrons! THAT was interesting and definitely not for children! How WONDERFUL it is to travel abroad though, especially when you can see ancient cities like these! Keep sharing- you’re bringing back fond memories!

  9. Linda Page says:

    I love the pics on Instagram! Did you get a set of dishes for me from that store display????? LOL!! I would love to see more pics of Hurculaneum and Pompeii and anywhere else you have gone or will go to. Love the pics! You are on an amazing journey. Thanks for taking us along.

  10. Susan, it has always been my dream to visit both of these cities. I taught Latin to all the students in our elementary school (K-5) for 2 years and of course, I included ancient Roman life. It was a dream job while it lasted! I was always impressed with how scientifically advanced the Romans were for their time. So I, for one, would love to see more of your photos with your commentary included!

  11. This is amazing! I’ve never heard about this. Thanks so much for sharing.

  12. Marlyn Bisher says:

    i loved this! Please share more pictures. Thanks!

  13. Seeing historical places as those is always fascinating. In your mind you can imagine the people, their lives and the events which transpired so long ago.

  14. Susan Hardy says:

    Great pictures and brings back memories of touring Pompeii and seeing all of the lovely tile work that survived. We hiked to the top of Vesuvius which was really fun.

  15. Oh, please continue sharing everything you can…it is so fascinating and it is bringing back warm memories of my own trips to Italy (oh, so long ago!)
    I did get to visit Pompeii but not Herculaneum….and of course, did get to visit the Isle of Capri. Looking forward to more!

  16. Susan – your photos and descriptions are fantastic! Let us see more once you’re back home and can sort through all of your pictures. When I visited Pompeii and Herculaneum, it was the grooves worn in the stones by the chariots that really allowed me to place in my mind just how ancient these places are. Sounds like you have had the trip of a lifetime!

  17. Jane Franks says:

    Just absolutely fascinating and gorgeous stone. Please share more when you can. I always love your photos and explanations. Another amazing arm chair travel adventure!! Thank you, Susan!

  18. Lovely photos! You journey was amazing. Thanks so much for sharing.

  19. Susan, this was absolutely fascinating! When I was young, I read a book describing the eruption of Vesuvius and what happened to these towns/cities. It is just spooky seeing that volcano in the background and know what it did to these people 2,000 years ago! Things were built so much better then than now, weren’t they? This blog post was perhaps your most interesting one yet, to me.

  20. Loving touring with you, Susan!

    You know I am wondering about the chariot marks – I wonder, since they’re not consistent if they are dips to keep water off the street instead? Just seems strange they aren’t worn completely in a straight way – makes one wonder.

    I think this is facinating that the colorful painting has lasted (probably not any more now that it is exposed, so sad,) and I adored the outdoor vendor urns, etc. How interesting!!!!

    I would love to see more. Thanks for sharing so much amazing stuff! : – )

  21. More pictures of Herculaneum when you can. Love this post! Love all your posts!

  22. I love history. So much to learn

  23. bobbi duncan says:

    Susan, this is awe inspiring…it’s hard to imagine that these old ruins are still standing when I look at the shoddy workmanship of most homes these days. I’m sure most of the places your touring seem surreal and so exciting as everything looks very different from back home. Can’t wait for more photos.

  24. pam ~ crumpety cottage says:

    Susan, these are fantastic pictures! I’m so thankful you are willing to share your adventure with us. And please add me to the list of those who would love to see more (but when you get home and are more settled) 😉

    I can understand how you felt awed and experienced chills while viewing and walking through Herculaneum. What an incredible experience! I have always wondered what it would be like to visit Israel and walk in and visit some of the places Jesus walked. I think it would feel amazing. I know a young man who visited Israel and actually visited a synagogue where Jesus spoke. My gosh! I get all woozy feeling just thinking about that. Amazing.

    Over here everything is so ‘new.’ Even what is old to us is still relatively new. It would truly be the experience of a lifetime visiting these ancient places. Glad you’re having a wonderful time. Stay safe. 🙂

  25. Oh, gal…I’ve SO ENJOYED seeing again…all my memories of same…it was just one of my favorite trips EVER!!! Wished I had “hidden something” that you could have discovered….another time!! 🙂 franki

  26. Marlene Stephenson says:

    I know i am behind i went to spend some time with cousins. thank you so much for this wonderful look into this herculean city,misspelled ,it was wonderful,i saved it so i could go over it again. Thanks Susan.

  27. Thank you for sharing your pictures, I was also there five years ago and seeing your pictures brought back wonderful memories of our trip. I saw that you were on your way to Capri and I’ve been there too. It’s a beautiful place. I’m so glad you are having a wonderful time and look forward to more pictures.

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