Below an unassuming town south of Naples lies a buried Roman city – but not the one you’re probably thinking of. Herculaneum was covered by the same eruption that destroyed its more famous neighbour Pompeii in 79 AD. But where Pompeii was quickly buried by a cloud of ash, Herculaneum escaped the first part of the eruption unscathed as the wind was blowing the other way. But later that night the ash column collapsed and sent a pyroclastic flow – a super-heated avalanche of gas and rock – towards Herculaneum. Originally it was thought that most city residents had escaped because hardly any skeletons were found. But in the 1980s, excavations of the old boat chambers found remains of 300 bodies where people had been waiting to be rescued. Despite being sheltered from the ash the 500°C heat had killed them instantly.
Over the next few days five more flows covered the city with a layer of rock and ash 25 metres deep, forming an airtight seal that preserved it for the next 1700 years. The new town of Ercolano grew up over the top, and it was only rediscovered in the 18th century when a local who was drilling a well hit a building rather than water. The first excavations of the site tended to focus on retrieving valuables to sell rather than preserving the ruins. Then when Pompeii was discovered the focus shifted there instead – not least because it was covered in only four metres of ash so was much easier to excavate. Digging restarted in Herculaneum in the 20th century but there is still a lot more that’s waiting to be uncovered. But for now the focus is on protecting the current ruins from damage rather than uncovering new ones.
The difference in the way Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed has had a big effect on what you can see today. At Herculaneum the flows surrounded and filled the buildings but kept them in tact, whereas at Pompeii the weight of the ash crushed many buildings. The heat of the pyroclastic flows also carbonised the wood at Herculaneum so some of the original doors, roof beams and even furniture has been discovered. Add to that the fact that Herculaneum was a richer city than Pompeii, with larger, more ornate buildings complete with mosaics and marble cladding, and you get even more impressive ruins.
The old city of Herculaneum lies about 50 feet below the level of modern Ercolano, so when you arrive your first sight is of the ruins is from above, with Vesuvius looming in the distance behind them. As you walk through the streets, some buildings are so well-preserved that it’s hard to believe they’re over 2000 years old. Many still have their original floors and stairs, and even their decorative statues, frescoes and mosaics. In what was the dining room of house number 22 you can see one of the most beautiful mosaics showing the gods Neptune and Amphitrite. But overlooking it all are the balconies of modern houses and people going about their everyday lives – with the city of today coexisting with the ghost city beneath them.
Herculaneum is about 12km south of Naples. There is parking outside the ruins (follow the signs for Ercolano Scavi) or it’s 10 minutes’ walk to the Circumvesuviana train station, which connects to Naples and Sorrento. The ruins are open from 8.30am to 7.30pm from April–October or 5pm from November–March. Entry costs €11 for adults or it’s free for EU citizens under 18. You can also get a three-day combined ticket which also covers Pompeii and three other archaeological sites (Oplontis, Stabiae and Boscoreale) for €20.