The dictionary meaning of the word ‘treasure’ is usually phrased as “wealth or riches stored or accumulated, especially in the form of precious metals, money, jewels or plate.” (Dictionary.com) Wikipedia takes it a little further by stating that “Treasure is a concentration of riches, often those that originate from ancient history, considered lost and/or forgotten until being rediscovered.” The best treasure is of course not “stored” but ‘buried’…

  • underground (like the treasure of Vilena in Spain),
  • in a cave like Aladdin’s hoard,
  • under the sea in a dead-man’s chest on board a pirate ship
  • or in a clam shell as revealed in the cartoons of Donald Duck’s nephews, Huey, Dewey and Louie.

The human desire to gaze upon buried treasure is perhaps why tourists love the idea of gazing upon the uncovered riches of the buried towns of the Campania Coast of Italy.

Of course there are many reasons why the world and its neighbours have been fascinated by the story of the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The first destruction around the Bay of Naples occurred in 65 AD with the advent of a powerful earthquake but devastation returned in 79AD when Vesuvius finished the job by almost obliterating the doomed towns from the historical record. There is an argument to say that Pompeii and Herculaneum were never completely ‘lost’…many scholars suspected they were there, hidden under the volcanic flows because Pliny the Younger, the Roman Writer, told us what happened to them…he wrote an account of the death of his uncle attempting to rescue friends from the other side of the Bay of Naples in the middle of the catastrophe.

As he was leaving the house, he was handed a message from Rectina, wife of Tascius whose house was at the foot of the mountain, so that escape was impossible except by boat.  She was terrified by the danger threatening her and implored him to rescue her from her fate. He changed his plans, and what he had begun in a spirit of inquiry he completed as a hero.  He gave orders for the warships (5) to be launched and went on board himself with the intention of bringing help to many more people besides Rectina, for this lovely stretch of coast was thickly populated.  He hurried to the place which everyone else was hastily leaving, steering his course straight for the danger zone.  He was entirely fearless, describing each new movement and phase of the portent to be noted down exactly as he observed them.  Ashes were already falling, hotter and thicker as the ships drew near, followed by bits of pumice and blackened stones, charred and cracked by the flames: then suddenly they were in shallow water, and the shore was blocked by the debris from the mountain. (from a Letter of Pliny the Younger)

Our fascination with the fate of the population of these Roman Holiday Resorts is clearly an example of our desire to look upon “a concentration of riches” originating from ancient history. However it seems to me more than that. We wonder at the artefacts and the information that have been dug up since 18th century that tell the story of the Romans whose civilization we are descended from.  There is something of the time capsule about the story, messages from a past that suddenly sweep back the blanket of time and show us our ancestors directly; their houses, their art, their food and most of all, the horror of how they died. It shouldn’t surprise us, given Pliny’s account of the issues of rescuing people by sea, that archaeologists have found the very skeletons of the frightened people in the boatsheds of Herculaneum, desperately hoping for rescue, before being frozen in death by one of Vesuvius’s last tricks, a burst of heat of over 500 degrees Celsius that instantly took their lives. Above everything, it is for the stories of the people among the treasures that tourists still ride the rickety Versuviana train from Naples to Ercalano and Pompeii

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I had a spare day on a trip to Rome one year and decided it was time to see Herculaneum. I took a fast train from Rome to Naples and it took a little over an hour. From the main platforms, you turn left and look for the signs to the Vesuviana line, the suburban trains that take you out along the bay towards Sorrento. You will need to buy a new ticket at the entrance and find the platform for trains heading to Ercalano. On arrival, there is no need to look for taxis or buses; take the street opposite the station exit and it’s a reasonable down-hill walk toward the Bay of Naples of about 15-20 minutes. If this doesn’t suit, there is a tourist bureau next to the station to provide all the normal tourist services. Having a guide is always of benefit, but the ruins of Herculaneum can be easily walked in a steady two to three hours if you are on a budget. Compared to Pompeii, Herculaneum is a much more convenient site to visit, being much smaller with a lot more protection from the sun.

The big difference between Herculaneum and its more famous neighbour Pompei is the size of the sites open for inspection. You can spend a full day in Pompei of continuous walking but still be unconvinced you have seen everything. The Herculaneum site is much smaller but this is not from any sense that all buried treasures have been uncovered. Excavating Herculaneum has been much slower than its neighbour down the bay as it was consumed by volcanic mud, not the more easily excavated volcanic ash that buried Pompei. Initially Herculaneum was excavated by tunnelling starting in 1738 and by this stage, large sections of the ‘modern’ town covered the Roman site. This has meant that the boundary of Ercalano has put a boundary on the excavations of the old Roman town as can be seen in the image on the right below.

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When you reach the back of the Herculanuem site today, you can see the small red bricks that constitute the walls of a Roman building, poking out from the wall that is the boundary of the excavated site. Archaeologists know a lot about this hidden building that the poster from the site indicates.

The layout of this building under the modern town, is known thanks to the descriptions and the plans drawn up in the eighteenth century, when it was explored through underground tunnels. Numerous paintings, sculptures and inscriptions were removed at that time and they are now held in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. This building, constructed in the middle of the first century AD, is made up of a large central square surrounded by porticoes, with a rectangle exedra at the centre of the far end, flanked by two side apses…

5591-Mammius-Maximus-688x1024.jpgIn 1743 the statue of L.Mammius Maximus, seen in the image on the left, was recovered from Herculaneum. Thanks to the bronze plate on the base of the statue, we know he was responsible for the building poking out of the boundary wall of Herculaneum (The Augusteum), where a cycle of statues of the Imperial Family were set up and recovered 1800 years later; today housed in the Naples Archaeological Museum.

Not all the buried treasures of Herculaneum have been removed to the Naples Museum. A walk around Herculaneum will show many murals in the homes of the citizens of Herculaneum that speak of the colourful imagination of the artists of the time before their world was ended by the Vesuvian fire storm. These murals are one of the highlights of a stroll around Herculaneum but the pleasure is mixed with the worry that it is these murals that are most at risk from modern pollution and the fascinated gazes of modern tourists.

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The last buried treasures of Herculaneum worthy of note here are the items most prone to damage by fire in Roman Houses…papyri. A site disconnected from the main area of Herculaneum that is open to the public is the ‘House of Papyrii’ which contains the library of the father of the famous Calpurnia, the wife of Julius Caesar. Here has been discovered the carbonised remains of scrolls that have been teasing archaeologists with the hope that classics of the ancient world that have disappeared over time may be rediscovered. For the last two centuries, archaeologists have been using many different methods of unrolling them apart manually, but this has generally been disastrously destructive. If a scroll is successfully unwound, it must be copied immediately as the ink fades very quickly when exposed to the Mediterranean air. There is new hope that digital x-raying techniques might begin to unravel the details of these scroll without destroying them.

Both Herculaneum and Pompeii illustrate that not all buried treasures are jewels or marble statues that remain in pristine condition since the time they were buried. Much of the buried treasure of these ancient Roman towns have not appreciated being brought into the harsh light and atmosphere of the modern world. Perhaps one day, like what has been done to preserve the Lascaux Caves in France, the old Roman towns will be reburied to save them for future generations and will be replaced by beautiful facsimiles so the tourist hordes can appreciate the hidden treasures without participating in their destruction.

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