Sunday, September 02, 2012

Herculaneum An ancient Roman town which, like Pompeii, was...

An ancient Roman town which, like Pompeii, was destroyed and buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Herculaneum was buried under a pyroclastic flow from the eruption and disappeared from history along with Pompeii, and also Stabiae and Oplontis. This was one of the first sights where we could study the skeletal remains of Roman people as normally the dead were cremated. Here the town appears to have been effectively evacuated however it's citizens did not escape the eruption, their bodies (around 300 individuals) have been found mainly along the sea shore in what would have been boat houses. 

Herculaneum was a smaller town than Pompeii however its inhabitants seem to have been wealthier. It's name comes from the Greek hero Hercules alluding to the fact that in its early history it was under Greek control. In the 4th century BC this changed and the Samnites took control of the area; and then in 89 BC, after the Social War, it fell to Roman control.

When Vesuvius erupted on the 24th August 79 AD, the town of Herculaneum was buried under c. 20 meters of mud and ash, where it remained hidden for c. 1600 years. It was discovered by accident,  when people were well digging in 1709. At the time of the eruption, Vesuvius had been dormant for nearly 800 years and wasn't even recognised as a volcano. Based on Pliny the younger's letters, the eruption began at around 1 pm when Vesuvius began spewing volcanic ash and stone thousands of meters into the air. Pliny described this as like a "stone pine tree". The wind blew to the southeast, blowing the ash over Pompeii and burying it, Herculaneum lay to the west and so only a few centimetres of ash fell on it. However, the eruptive column then collapsed, sending a pyroclastic surge, a mixture of ash and hot gases at around 100 m/ph. This hit the beach and boathouses at around 1 am, killing all those sheltering there instantly with its intense heat of around 500 degrees centigrade. There is evidence of this heat left in the bones, where skulls have exploded, fractures appeared on long bones and teeth and contractions of the hands and feet- all due to the sheer heat of the flow.