Postcard from Herculaneum, Italy: Hot volcanic ash buried town for centuries

View of Mount Vesuvius from Vomero neighborhood in Naples

Although a gorgeous backdrop on the Sea of Naples, Mount Vesuvius is not sleeping. The only active volcano on the mainland of Europe erupted as recently as 1944, showering ash and rocks upon the Allied forces establishing an airbase nearby.

But the volcano is most known for its spectacular explosion in the year 79, an event reputed to have killed as many as 16,000 citizens of the Roman Empire.

From “Visiting Pompeii” on World Archaeology:

At peak intensity, the eruptive column reached a height of 30km (about 18 miles) or more as the mountain ejected 150,000 tons of material per second…. The air-fall of ash, pumice and occasional rock fragments, accumulating at about 15cm an hour, eventually covered Pompeii to a depth of almost 3m (close to 10 feet)….

The mountain had not finished its work, however, and only now, in the final six hours or so of the eruption, did it became truly lethal….

“A fearful black cloud,” Pliny reports, “was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size. …Soon afterwards the cloud sank to earth and covered the sea ….”

It took perhaps five or six minutes to reach Pompeii from the lip of the crater: a dense, rolling, ground-hugging mass of gas, ash and rock (the pyroclastic flow), preceded a few seconds in front by a scorching blast like that from a flamethrower…. At its hottest, where temperatures reached anything from 400 ° to 800 ° C, the ‘black cloud’ carbonized wooden timbers, doors and shutters, and killed those it struck instantly, as brains boiled and skulls exploded in the flash. Others, where the heat was less, were asphyxiated as they breathed in hot gas and incandescent ash….

In the 24 hours plus that the eruption had lasted, it is estimated that Vesuvius had unleashed thermal energy 100,000 times greater than that of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima.

Strangely, the destruction of Pompeii and other towns around the base of the volcano preserved the ruins for thousands of year.  Ancient cities frozen in time.

I was fortunate to have visited Pompeii in college, but much has been uncovered, restored and opened to public since then.

The flaw is that the 163-acre archaeological park is no secret. The number of tourists swarming through the treasured ruins is creeping toward 4-million annually. Photographs such as the lead one for an October story in the New York Times, “Can a Restored Pompeii Be Saved from ‘Clambering’ Tourists?,” scared us away. Paige McClanahan writes that nearly 450,000 people overwhelmed Pompeii in the month of July.

In contrast, only about 300,000 tourists visit Herculaneum a year. So instead, we opted for the much smaller town, a little closer to Naples, not as spectacular but not over-crowded.

The first official explorations at Herculaneum were begun in 1738, yet only a small portion of the once-wealthy port town has been excavated. While the archaeological zone is modest in size compared to Pompeii, the affluence of its residents is evidenced by abundant use of marble throughout.

For centuries, it was believed that almost the entire population of the town had been evacuated by sea before the worst of the eruption. But in the 1980s, digs uncovered skeletal remains of hundreds, huddled together under the arcades of the then-seaside boat houses, buried under ash while waiting ships that failed to save them.

We left them unmolested, as the hoards of tourists in Pompeii left us unmolested to explore Herculaneum at our own pace in peace.

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