Restoring The Roman Retreat Of Herculaneum Beach, Buried By Vesuvius
Herculaneum beach in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, buried along with Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on October 24th 79 AD, is to be excavated and restored. When the archaeologists finish, visitors will be able to stroll along Herculaneum beach, as elite Romans once did, before the lethal surge of nature wiped the region out.
Herculaneum Beach: Created And Destroyed By A Volcano
Like today, but perhaps even more so in the ancient world, people were attached to their ancestral territories. For thousands of years people had farmed on the hyper-fertile slopes of Mount Vesuvius and nobody in the Roman world predicted that their natural sustainer of life, Vesuvius, was also a destroyer god who would take back everything.
In his 2013 BBC2 documentary The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum , Wallace-Hadrill told the story of the disaster of 79 AD and he said we all make “the mistake” of seeing ancient Roman society as a two-part entity: rich people or poor people. However, the presenter said, “Herculaneum gives us back the middle people - and they are extraordinary.”
Stunning paintings found in Herculaneum attest to its Roman luxury seaside retreat reputation. ( milosk50 / Adobe Stock)
A Poorly Preserved Site Becomes An Excellence Textbook Case
Herculaneum was an ancient coastal settlement that is today situated within the commune of Ercolano, Campania, Italy. According to Strabo's Geography the town had ancient Greek origins and it was always associated with the hero Heracles ( Hercules), who was worshiped not only as the spiritual founder of the town but also as the overlord of Mount Vesuvius.
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Like the nearby city of Pompeii, Herculaneum was also destroyed and buried under thick black volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. And it was also well-preserved beneath deep layers of ash.
According to The New York Times in 2013, “Herculaneum has gone from one of the worst preserved UNESCO sites at risk of being put on the endangered list to becoming a textbook case of successful archaeological conservation.”
Now, a new stage of planned archaeological excavations is about to start, with the aim of restoring the Antica-Spiaggia-area Herculaneum beach.
Boathouses on Herculaneum beach, where 300 skeletons were found. These unfortunate victims were about to be evacuated but never made it out. (Matthias Holländer / Public domain )
Herculaneum Beach Was Primarily A Luxury Seaside Retreat
While Pompeii and Herculaneum were both covered with pyroclastic material from the volcanic blast, the director of the Herculaneum archaeological park, Francesco Sirano, said more wooden and organic artifacts and items were preserved at the latter.
This fact was exemplified in an article in The Telegraph that said the charred remains of almost “300 people were uncovered in a series of boat houses in which the last inhabitants perished in the intense heat waiting to be rescued from the sea.”
The Herculaneum Society say the city was smaller, but that it was a much wealthier than Pompeii. And while Pompeii was a thriving city, and greatly industrialized, Herculaneum served the powerful Roman elite “as a luxury seaside retreat ,” comprising grand and luxurious marble-clad houses.
Sirano told Italian news agency ANSA that the Herculaneum Conservation Project ( HCP) began in 2001. But now, the team of archaeologists have a renewed awareness of the complexity of the site he “expects further and solid insights.”
Skeletons of victims in Herculaneum that perished because of the Mount Vesuvius eruption in 79 AD. ( waldorf27 / Adobe Stock)
Challenges Of The Herculaneum Beachside Restoration Project
The ANSA report says the planned excavations are expected to last two and a half years. The archaeologists aim to reach the level of the western side of the beach which they will bring back to its original sand level, just as it was at the time of the eruption in 79 AD.
Ultimately, future visitors to the site will be able to relive those last moments in October 79 AD when the gods reset Roman society and punished them for their riches and decadence.
However, because the targeted beach is buried about four meters below the current sea-level, this project will be unlike any previous digs at Herculaneum. The excavators say they expect to be faced with a host of unforeseen problems with water drainage . But their expected hurdles are not restricted only to the hazards of heavy-duty archaeology and shifting hundreds of tons of sand. The entire restoration project must also comply with modern water regulations.
Top image: Looking south from Naples along the coast to the Herculaneum beach front that is now being restored. Source: Sergii Figurnyi / Adobe Stock
By Ashley Cowie