Disaster at Herculaneum

Disaster at Herculaneum

We were headed to one of the most densely populated areas in Europe, Naples. And it’s not just Naples that is densely populated, it’s also the areas to the south and southwest. I was puzzled as to why so many people would want to live in areas so close to an active volcano, Mount Vesuvius. This is the volcano that destroyed the ancient Roman towns of Pompei and Herculaneum in the eruption of 79 AD.

Now, of course, the Italian Government has the latest monitoring technology installed to help pre-empt an eruption, the last of which was in 1944, and has developed a well-considered evacuation plan for Naples and the areas around Vesuvius. But the people of Herculaneum thought they had an effective escape plan as well.

Our Voyage to Antiquity so far

After docking at Naples on the morning of 15th October 2016, we set out for a tour Herculaneum. I knew about Pompeii, but had not heard of Herculaneum prior to booking this cruise.

Much of ancient Herculaneum still lies beneath the modern Italian cities of Ercolano (previously Resina) and Portici. It was buried in 79 AD by a mix of lava and mud. And it was believed, until recently, that most of the population of Herculaneum had escaped before the flow descended. We now know that is not true, although it is still possible that some residents left early by boat and did reach safety.

The arrow indicates the approximate position of Herculaneum, while other areas of significance to this story are circled (Map courtesy of Google Maps)

The escape plan for Herculaneum had at least two basic flaws. Firstly people believed they would have time to leave before being affected by an eruption, however it is now known that toxic gas and intense heat instantly killed everyone within a 10 kilometer radius of Vesuvius. Secondly, because Herculaneum was a coastal town it was thought the population could easily escape by sea. However, the boats they were relying on for evacuation were either destroyed or prevented from reaching the shore by an outgoing tidal wave, caused by the eruption. And then if anyone in the town had survived these events by some miracle, they would have been buried in the boiling mud that covered the entire town to a depth of several meters. It is a horror story similar to that of Pompeii, except on a smaller scale.

Looking down on the western, seaside edge of Herculaneum
Standing several meters above the town on land raised by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, we can see some of the boat sheds – in the sheds and just visible are the replica bones of those who died there

Prior to the 79 AD eruption these boat sheds were close to the sea. Now they are below sea level and around 450 meters for the water’s edge.

Original bones have been removed and replaced by moulded replicas to accurately show their original position

Around 300 skeletons were buried in the boat sheds by volcanic mud. It seems these poor souls were waiting for the rescue boats when they were killed instantly by intense heat, then buried by mud slides that permeated the town. Other skeletons were found with sunken rescue boats, out in the bay.

Herculaneum was a resort town mainly for wealthy Romans. It was about a third the size of Pompei and sustained a population of around 4000 people. Despite the wealth, this was a place of high density living. To date, only a small part of it has been excavated.

Looking north across the excavation with the northern concrete retaining wall supporting the higher ground of the current city of Ercolano from the lower, ancient Herculaneum
Looking west across the excavation with eastern and southern retaining walls bounding it. Ercolano and Mount Vesuvius (faintly) in the background

Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1710 by a local farmer while digging a well. He hit on marble slabs of the Roman Theatre. Looting by tunnels dominated the next phase of the excavation, but in 1738 authorised, systematic exploration began using multiple shafts. The theatre was surveyed, although never uncovered as it lies beneath various modern buildings.

A model of the Roman Theatre at Herculaneum
A minor road running east to west into the western perimeter wall. Road and kerb made of volcanic rock.

The roads are very narrow, suitable for nothing larger than a horse and small cart

One of the major roads running north to south
The Men’s Forum Baths – Can anyone confirm this?
A room of a public building, lined with colourful frescos
A section of another public building
The portico of a private villa or the Forum Baths?

You can see that I am confused about the names of some of the buildings. I decided to go off on my own to take photos, so deprived myself of our guide’s knowledge.

Ornate entry floor to a private home
An example of mosaics / ceramics used to decorate the walls of private and public buildings. This one features Neptune and Amphitrite, flanked by frescos of nature.
Clay pots sunk into the marble countertop of a “grocery store”, used for food storage
The Terrace of Marcus Nonius Balbus with his funerary altar and statue. He was the patron of Herculaneum. Behind and to the right are the suburban baths
Looking east down another minor road

It is interesting to note the pipes on the footpath to the left in the photo above. I was told these are lead water pipes. When scientists tested the skeletons from the boat sheds of Herculaneum they noticed a high concentration of lead in the bones. The unfortunate people of Herculaneum were doomed, even without volcanic destruction.


Herculaneum is worth a visit, but make certain you have a knowledgable guide or hire an audio guide device to get the most from your time there.


Late on the same day, Maggie and I had some free time in Naples, but I’ll get into that in the next episode of alistairstravel. Please join us.

And, feel free to add a comment or a correction below.

  • Kevin @ Bev G.
    Posted at 13:25h, 17 March Reply

    Excellent copy and photos, Alister! The somber and decayed images are stark testimony to that disastrous day! A little known historical background to the tragedy is that Herculaneum had become a favoured retreat for the wealthy burgers of Naples and Rome.
    Look forward to future Alistertraveltreats!
    Congratulations and best wishes, K’n’B.

    • alistairstravel
      Posted at 14:01h, 17 March Reply

      Thanks for you comment Kevin. I appreciate the extra information you provided and your insight regarding this subject.

  • Ron
    Posted at 00:44h, 18 March Reply

    Thanks as usual Al, it takes me back to the overcast day we were there. I’m pretty sure that the shot you asked about was part of the men’s bath because we didn’t get down there so didn’t see this scene. However we did get to the gymnasium and the part we saw wasn’t like this. I’m reading this on 18.3.17 and I’ve just watched a news report of tourists and camera crews running for their lives from an erupting Mt Etna. The more things change the more they stay the same. By the way, I’m pretty sure you saw more than us because we stayed with the guide a bit longer…talk about glacial pace. Good decision my friend to cut and run early. Ron

  • alistairstravel
    Posted at 14:31h, 20 March Reply

    Thanks for your comment Ron and the clarification on what I thought might be the Gym. The Mount Etna eruption last week was a shock and a timely reminder that extreme caution is warranted in relation to any volcano. My view is, stay as far away as possible.

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