Pompeii and Herculaneum: Two Beautiful Mummies

By Irina.

Johann Goethe said about Herculaneum,
“Humanity survived many disasters, but no one of them brought so much pleasure to descendants.”

I walk along the street which has been uninhabited for two thousand years and enter the next house. Some frescos are preserved on the walls, and Doric columns stand in the patio. People used to bake bread in the kitchen and make love in the bedrooms on the second floor. We are in the abandoned city that was hidden from view for an unimaginable two thousand years—in Herculaneum, Italy.

The Augustus College or Collegio degli Augustali. Herculaneum, Italy.

The Augustus College or Collegio degli Augustali

A thirty-meter thickness of mudflow (lava, dirt, and water), which covered the city after the Vesuvius eruption, killed much fewer people here than in neighboring Pompeii. Most of the citizens managed to escape, but their city was preserved for many long years. Today, the empty Herculaneum lies in a huge funnel very similar to a volcano crater.

Have you ever played computer games in the fantasy genre, Lineage, for example? The ultramodern graphic sometimes gives you the very real impression that you are wandering in unknown worlds. I remember when we had just met, Victor was a very rich orc in the Lineage game. He promised to present me with a real dragonet whom I must feed and raise, and which would be able to protect me when it would be big and strong.

Just for the moment imagine yourself as a young wizard or elf, or maybe a skillful warrior. Your path runs through the unknown and sometimes even dangerous worlds, where you can meet weird strangers. Once in an unknown forest, the branches will suddenly spread apart and you will see an ancient city. It was abandoned a long time ago. What happened there and where are its citizens?

One of the streets of  Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Opus Craticium  or Casa a Graticcio. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Opus Craticium or Casa a Graticcio

House of the Wooden Partition or Casa del Tramezzo di Legno. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Wooden Partition or Casa del Tramezzo di Legno

You walk along the unfamiliar paved streets looking into the empty houses with gardens surprisingly full of blooming apple trees.

Here is a good two-story house. It seems inhabited. You climb up the stony stairs and open the door. Inside, you see a small well-preserved pool, a marble table, something like a kitchen in the adjoining room, and a mosaic altar in the atrium. From above, a cupid looks at you slyly with narrowed eyes and smiles.

The next house. A wooden staircase to the second floor does not seem secure, but this house also has its own altar and remnants of wall paintings.

Herculaneum, Italy.

Fresco in Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Great Portal or Casa del Gran Portale. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Great Portal or Casa del Gran Portale

One more house. Very rich floor mosaic at the entry, pools like new, benches—all made of white marble. Definitely, it reminds you of thermae.

Central thermae in Herculaneum, Italy.

Mosaic in thermae in Herculaneum, Italy.

You go further. Beyond any doubt, this villa belonged to some aristocrat. Just look at the height of the ceilings. A big hall, columns decorated with fretwork, floors with mosaic, and walls with colorful paintings. Still, there is not a living soul around.

If you look closely at the decayed wall paintings, you may distinguish the delicately drawn animals, gods, and ornamental fragments. The house is very big. It is bordered by a patio with a small garden. The garden is overgrown with bushes, but a small fountain is preserved with its mosaic on a hunting topic.

House of the Tuscan Colonnade or Casa del Colonnato Tuscanico. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Tuscan Colonnade or Casa del Colonnato Tuscanico

House of Galba or Casa di Galba. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of Galba or Casa di Galba

Samnite house or Casa Sannitica. Herculaneum, Italy.

Samnite house or Casa Sannitica

House of the Black Hall or Casa del Salone Nero. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Black Hall or Casa del Salone Nero

House of the Neptune Mosaic or Casa di Nettuno e Amfitrite. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Neptune Mosaic or Casa di Nettuno e Amfitrite

House of the Black Hall or Casa del Salone Nero. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Black Hall or Casa del Salone Nero

The fountains could be found at any big building and simply in the streets. It might have been a rich city.

What do you want from this place? Is there a magic artifact hidden somewhere? Or are you awaiting a priest in a temple hoping he’ll impart some secret knowledge? Maybe you have to decode some writings carved on a secret marble plate?

You don’t need to be an elf or a wizard to get into the city I described. You just need to pry yourself away from the computer, buy an airline ticket to Naples, and come to Herculaneum, an ancient Italian city buried under a deep layer of tuff during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24th, 79 AD.

Herculaneum, Italy.

As it often happens, Herculaneum was discovered by chance when workers were digging a well. It happened in the 18th century, and then the city was excavated and investigated during the next two hundred years.

Some years ago we visited the museum-house of the great poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin in Russian Saint Petersburg. We were standing in a small room with intentionally low light and looked at the small leather settee where the short life of the poet ended.I could not overcome my inner desire and touched the wooden, blackened-by-time table of the owner. One heartbeat—I heard a whisper and seemingly a rustle of a long silk dress; the second beat—a sorrowful sigh and a click as if a fan was opened. The next beat was the strongest one and I heard a polite, but strict remark from the museum attendant, “Nothing must be touched here. It is from the 18th century!”

Be sure, as long as you’re not a vandal, you won’t be stopped in Herculaneum. You are allowed to touch the first century, just as the preceding ones. Free your imagination. Touch the stonework of any house. My Lord, there are two thousand years between the citizens of the Italian Herculaneum and us!

The city is almost real. We walked through the streets, acceptable for living nowadays. The undamaged condition of some houses after 2000 years is amazing: the roofs, the stairs, the window grates, and the wooden (!) stairs and balconies.

Unfortunately, just like in Pompeii, not everything is open for excursions in Herculaneum, but curiosity and excitement won: I climbed a low fence and peeped into the inner garden.

I definitely heard the chirp of a bird, then some sounds from the kitchen and murmur of the fountain. I heard as a jar crashed on the stones, children’s laughter, and voice of the house owner. It is his house and his world. We are just the strangers who come and go, looking into someone’s window.

House of the Neptune Mosaic or Casa di Nettuno e Amfitrite. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Neptune Mosaic or Casa di Nettuno e Amfitrite

House of the Neptune Mosaic or Casa di Nettuno e Amfitrite. Herculaneum, Italy.

House of the Neptune Mosaic or Casa di Nettuno e Amfitrite

Augustus College or Collegio degli Augustali. Herculaneum, Italy.

Augustus College or Collegio degli Augustali

The catastrophe started with a strong earthquake. The quiet and peaceful life of a small maritime city ended when the eruption of the Mount Vesuvius buried Pompeii under a six-meter layer of volcanic ash and then Herculaneum under a thick layer of lava and dirt.

Vesuvius, silent for almost 800 years, awakened in the afternoon. It was around 1 p.m. when its huge funnel spewed out volcanic ash. This cloud of poison gas and ash, quickly driven by the wind, covered Pompeii. The city and all its citizens died in a matter of hours.

Herculaneum is located westward of Pompei, and the first phase of the eruption did not level it to dust. The majority of the citizens, frightened by the occurring event, managed to leave the city. Only a few stayed. For many years, it was thought that everybody escaped, but thirty years ago during the excavations at the shoreline, more than 200 human remains were found. Probably, the ancient Herculanians were hoping to escape by sea, but the storm was too strong and they failed.

At nightfall, the flows of lava and dirt streamed into Herculaneum at a great rate, 100 km/h. When the fiery avalanche reached the city, it killed those few people who stayed there, hermetically filled the streets and inner premises of the houses, having left Herculaneum under a solid 25-meter layer which preserved the city for future centuries.

1700 years passed before people managed to walk the streets of those seemingly forever dead cities again. Nowadays, everyone is able to see two main archeological findings in the south of Italy: Pompeii and Herculaneum.

View of Pompeii. Italy.

View of Pompeii

One of the streets of  Pompeii, Italy.

One of the streets of Pompeii

Oven in Pompeii, Italy.

Oven in Pompeii

The Villa of the Papyri preserved the only library of antique times. It contained more than 1800 almost intact philosophical manuscripts in Greek and has become the most incredible find of the scientists. But like us, you won’t be able to get into the villa—only 10% of its territory has been cleared of the dust. Further excavations have been stopped a long time ago due to increased risk and high cost. Now, all the priceless findings are stored at the Naples National Archaeological Museum (we visited it later).

However, there is one place on Earth where you can see the Villa of the Papyri in all its glory today. Lucky Americans, they do not need to fly anywhere. In 1974, Paul Getty, the American businessman, created a copy of the villa in Malibu, USA.

Villa Getty. Malibu, USA.

Villa Getty. Malibu, USA.

Villa Getty. Malibu, USA.

I think that the most part of Herculaneum will stay under the thick layer of tuff forever. The excavations are stopped because the borders of ancient Herculaneum overlapping with the city blocks of modern Ercolano. Every day the modern citizens of Ercolano drink burning hot coffee, talk loudly with their neighbors, and traditionally hang their linen out to dry on their terraces overlooking the Bay of Naples and empty Herculaneum.

How does it feel living near the ghost city? I am not sure this is for me. After all, Vesuvius has not disappeared; it is near all the time. Even after living in Pompeii just for five days, I noticed a newly formed habit: wake up, step out onto the balcony and check the crater—to see if it is smoking. 🙂

Vesuvius, Italy.

More about Italy:

Sinking Venice: At the Dying Beauty’s Bedside
Venice Carnival 2014: Our First Carnival Outfits
Hadrian’s Villa, Villa d’Este, and Tivoli are Three Different Planets! The Last is the Worst!

Posted in Italy. 29 Comments »

29 Responses to “Pompeii and Herculaneum: Two Beautiful Mummies”

  1. Andrew Petcher Says:

    So which do you prefer, Pompeii or Herculaneum?


  2. wordsfromanneli Says:

    Fantastic post. When I first heard about Pompeii I wanted to be an archaeologist and be the one who digs up this town.


  3. Deanna Tennent Masterson Says:

    I had sad feelings walking around Pompeii with a large guided group. The building interiors were quite dark but i still took photos & was surprised when later i saw all the beautiful mural shots I captured unknowingly. The small pens where the gladiators waited were shocking to me. Yes, Vesuvius is ever present no matter where you are. I really enjoyed this post, especially as I didn’t visit Herculaneum.


  4. Freya Says:

    Loved this article. I visited a few years ago Pompeii and I thought it was really impressive.


  5. Misterkappa Says:

    Nice post, i love it! 🙂


  6. thebritishberliner Says:

    Lovely post Victor and your photos are inspiring as usual. I love the old paintings on the wall and ruins of that unfortunate city. I’ve never been to Pompeii but I sure want to!


  7. Jdomb's Travels (@jdomb) Says:

    We didn’t have time for both Pompeii and Herculaneum. I wish we had as I hear most people like Herculaneum better.


  8. Anne Whitaker Says:

    I hadn’t realised until I read this wonderfully atmospheric post, how rich the colours are still, after time has done its worst….many thanks for the tour!


  9. Jeff Mackey Says:

    Pompeii was always my favorite.


  10. Moon Says:

    Walking down the streets of historic city of Pompei must a unique and enthralling experience! Great pics as ever.


  11. Alberto C. Says:

    Great post! I recently had the chance to visit Pompeii and it was just amazing!

    I’ve also created a post in my travel blog regarding my trip, please have a look and let me know what you think! 🙂


    Happy travels!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. norman j kemp Says:

    Loved them both,unfortunately we had a guided tour,they rushed us round in a whirlwind.
    Most of the day was taken up collecting all the other tourists from hotels and returning them.
    LESSON LEARNED…..never again use a guided tour. I want to return soon and guide myself.

    Liked by 1 person

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