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The Other Pompeii
September 5, 2017
It was close to forty degrees when we trudged through the streets of Ercolano. I passed two squashed rats on the way (a combination of two things that make me squirm--rats and dead things) so the thought this place better be worth it did cross my mind. 'This place' was the excavated ruins of Herculaneum, a half hour train ride from Naples on the gritty, south west coast of Italy. The town was buried by the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79AD- yes, that's the same eruption that destroyed Pompeii. Herculaneum is far smaller than its famous sister, with much of the ancient town still buried under the concrete grandeur of modern Ercolano.
I'd visited Pompeii several years ago and was completely blown away by the level of preservation, but Herculaneum was something else again. (Spoiler: it was worth passing two dead rats.) Lying to the west of Vesuvius, Herculaneum was covered in volcanic material much more slowly than Pompeii, leading to the preservation of organic material including wooden doors, windows, and roofs. As a result, it's almost impossible to believe civilisation ended here almost two thousand years ago.
Far from being overrun by audio-guide-wielding tourists, Herculaneum has a stillness about it. With a little imagination, time falls away. It becomes very easy to immerse yourself in this ancient world; one that still has plenty in common with our lives today.
Walk the streets of Herculaneum and you'll see a board out the front of a pub advertising the prices of various wines. You'll find a health spa complete with steam room and plunge pool.
You'll walk through the kitchen of an old tavern with its pots for heat and storing food. In Roman times it wasn't the done thing to eat lunch at home, so the Herculaneans would congregate here for a drink and hot meal, being sure to be seen in the right social circles.
And like the haunting plaster moulds of Pompeii, the Herculaneum ruins have their own reminder of the human cost of the eruption. Skeletons have been found throughout the excavations, but it's this grisly sight that gives us a sense of just how terrifying the eruption must have been. Believed to be an old boat shed, this building now stands a mile from the sea; a new shoreline created following the eruption. Were these people trying to escape on the water? Or simply take shelter from the enormous ash cloud descending on their city? Either way, it is unsettling easy to feel their terror and desperation.
Herculaneum is a reminder of how constant the human experience truly is. For me, this has always been the power of history- and by extension, historical fiction. It's a reminder that we shared plenty with our ancestors; even those who lived and died almost two thousand years ago.