The history and current state of Herculaneum

The other ancient disaster area


To the discerning visitor, Herculaneum has always been more attractive than its sister in disaster, Pompeii. Upper storeys are still standing; wood and other organic matter survive to an extraordinary degree. In the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, everything of quality tends to come from Herculaneum rather than Pompeii; bronze statues still have their inlaid eyes, marble statues still have their paint. Better preserved, smaller, quieter, it is so much easier to imagine how people lived there—or it was until the 1990s, when, through lack of funding for routine maintenance, exacerbated by some of the methods and materials used in its original restoration from the 1930s to the 1950s, the condition of the site deteriorated sharply and dramatically.

The Herculaneum Conservation Project (headed by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and backed by the Packard Humanities Institute but staffed mostly by Italian archaeologists and conservators) was set up in 2001 to investigate what can be done, not just to halt and repair the present processes of decay but to find longer-term solutions. Ten years on, Wallace-Hadrill has produced a combination of progress report, historical commentary and coffee-table art book, of a sort never before dedicated to the site. Interrupted at intervals by panoramic colour photographs printed as opposing full-page fold-outs, and accompanied by hundreds of other colour illustrations, it is meant to be read and digested at leisure at home; a generously proportioned map of the site is bound at the back.

The text interweaves a wealth of new information from the current project with new insights into older discoveries. “Geology” introduces us to the true nature and force of the pyroclastic flows that buried the site in 79AD and to the fact that the headland on which the town was built had been quarried extensively for stone at a time when the sea-level was lower. (The quarrying evidently predates the later sea-front and one wonders whether it extends under other parts of the town, conditioning some of its layout.)

Then comes an entertaining account of the personalities and politics that have driven the excavations since the 17th century to the present day, and an analysis of Amedeo Maiuri’s 34 years as the director of archaeology (1927-61), alternately praising his efforts to make the site into a “living museum” and castigating him for manipulating the evidence in the process. These are mirrored at the other end of the book by an equally thought-provoking account of the pressures and powers at work now.

For the rest, the size and character of the town remains as uncertain as ever: possibly some 15-20 hectares to Pompeii’s 66—more large coastal village than port city, although a harbour of some kind is now postulated to lie to the south-east. Its inhabitants in 79AD are well represented by 300 victims found by the beach in 1986, not yet fully studied, and by a list of 500 names from the basilica, also awaiting publication, which indicates that by around 50AD possibly as little as one-sixth of the male citizen body was genuinely freeborn, double that number were legally freed slaves (liberti) and an equivalent number again were in an intermediary category, neither truly freeborn nor proper liberti.

Nuances of local society are explored further in “Standards of Living”, finding how difficult it can be to match the literary evidence with the archaeological. In “High Life”, the precept that more space and richer decoration should mean higher social (as opposed to economic) status struggles even harder to find proof. Individual house plots range from a “standard” 200 sq. m to as much as ten times that, but the two ends of the scale are found in close juxtaposition, exchanging rooms across what should be their property boundaries. “Low Life” is identified in three-storey infill, containing shops and small flats, on the west side of the grand palaestra (wrestling school). Here, too, however, there are endless contradictions in the evidence.

In fact, Herculaneum is turning out to be a far more complicated place than we ever thought and the dangers of using it to fill in whatever is missing at Pompeii are becoming clearer by the day; a particularly telling chapter attempts to define the differences between the two sites.

This book demonstrates just how much we have yet to learn about Herculaneum and how important it is to ensure that its survival is secured for future generations.

The writer is Professor of classics and philosophy, Royal Holloway College, University of London

Herculaneum: Past and Future

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

Frances Lincoln, 352 pp, £40 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘The other ancient disaster area'