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Herculaneum

The morning of August 24, A.D. 79, was clear and sunny along the Bay of Naples. In his bakeshop in the fashionable resort town of Herculaneum, Sextus Patulcus set out bread and pastries, imprinted with his initials. Greengrocer Aulus Fuferus watered the fruits and vegetables on his stand. A gem cutter worked on a delicate cameo, while a bronze caster repaired a candelabrum. Tailors, artists and tavern keepers were equally busy. The town was crowded with visitors who had come to enjoy the competitions being held in the Palestra, the athletic field, to commemorate the birthday of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome.

But not everyone was in a festive mood. Locked in a room with barred windows, in the Shrine to Augustus on the Forum, was a highborn prisoner. A sick boy lay on a wooden bed in the back room of the gem cutter's shop. In a boatyard, a stocky slave braced his aching muscles to heave yet another load onto his back. And in a nearby mansion a 14-year-old nursemaid struggled to carry about her 10-month-old charge.

At noon Herculaneans and visitors felt a shock and heard a violent explosion, followed by a continuous thundering noise. Six and a half kilometres to the east they saw a pillar of roiling white ash and pumice rocketing up from the cone of Mount Vesuvius. The column soared to a height of 26 kilometres, then mushroomed out at the top, partly obscuring the sun and turning the day into ominous twilight.

Although the dogs, cats and rats most likely fled – not one has yet been found in the ruins of the city. Despite the tremors and the smell of sulfur in the air, only a sprinkling of ash fell on the town. But a huge, dense cloud was seen drifting toward the 20,000 residents of Pompeii, 11 kilometres to the south.

By mid-aftemoon Pompeian refugees – bearing terrible tales of ash and pumice raining down on their city – were streaming through Herculaneum on their way north to Naples. Alarmed that a wind shift might cause a similar calamity in Herculaneum, some residents joined the trek. Reaching Naples, they settled in a section of the city that is still known as the Herculaneum Quarter.

Night fell, but the eruption continued, made more ominous by burning gases spewing from the crater. Terrified by the sight, many residents went down to the beach, planning to move up the coast road or flee by boat if the situation got any worse. Some found shelter under the stone arches that supported the walls and waterfront buildings on the bluff overlooking the sea.

Suddenly, shortly after midnight on August 25, the towering eruption column collapsed. Horrified Herculaneans saw a fiery avalanche – a pyroclastic surge, volcanologists call it – of superheated ash and pumice mixed with air and volcanic gases cascade toward the city at more than 90 km/h. Its temperature is estimated to have been 400°.

With only minutes to save themselves, the Herculaneans still in the city raced to the beach. But in the panic, the sick boy in the gem shop, the prisoner in the Shrine of Augustus, and a few others were forgotten.

The fiery tide poured over the entire city and upon the beach, engulfing everyone in its path. Minutes later, a second more devastating surge blew off roofs and knocked down walls and colonnades, carrying the debris out to sea.

When Vesuvius finally grew silent after 19 hours, Herculaneum was buried under 20 metres of black, rock-hard tephra, which extended its coastline a half kilometre farther out to sea. Pompeii lay under six metres of gray ash. Centuries passed, and the two cities were forgotten.

In 1709 Herculaneum was rediscovered when workmen digging a well reached the stage of an ancient theatre. They brought out blocks of dressed marble and Greek and Roman statues, triggering a frenzied treasure hunt.

The early excavators did incalculable damage. Looters undermined buildings and smashed through walls, destroying murals and mosaics, and discarding anything that did not command a ready price. But the tephra covering Herculaneum was difficult to penetrate with hand tools. In 1765 the excavations were abandoned in favor of Pompeii, where the loose ash covering the city could easily be removed.

Excavation at Herculaneum was not resumed in earnest until 1927 when compressed-air drills, electric tools and bulldozers were available. This time the work was directed by archeologists.

Today, four square blocks of Herculaneum have been uncovered down to their cobblestoned streets, as well as the Forum, part of the Basilica which housed the administrative offices and law courts, and about half of the Palestra.

Visiting the city is like entering a time warp. Unlike Pompeii, where most of the buildings had collapsed, the majority of the Herculaneum buildings and their contents were preserved by the pyroclastic material that filled them. Doors and shutters still swing in their sockets. Bronze water faucets can be turned on and off.

Before the household objects were placed in cases to protect them from souvenir hunters, the rooms looked as though the occupants had just stepped out. A charred chicken leg was on a plate next to the sick boy's bed. In other homes, dressing tables were strewn with combs and cosmetics. Jewel cases were filled with rings, bracelets and brooches. Kitchen shelves were stacked with dishes, and pots and pans rested on charcoal stoves.

Time had also stopped in the stores and craftsmen's shops. Lying on the gem cutter’s workbench was the half-finished cameo. The bronze candelabrum still awaited repair in the tinker's shop. The oven in Sextus Patulcus' bakery held 80 loaves of bread.

But one important part of the Herculaneum time capsule was missing – the people. With only nine human skeletons discovered during the first 250 years of excavation, it had long been assumed that most of the population had escaped. But why would shopkeepers leave cash behind, or householders fail to take easily portable valuables found in homes throughout the city?

The mystery began to unravel in 1980, when workers installing an underground pump uncovered two human skeletons lying on the ancient beach. One, a stocky male, was nicknamed Helmsman by the archeologists because he was found next to an overturned boat. The second was a woman who became known as the Pretty Lady. Clearing more of the beach in 1982, the archeologists encountered 13 more skeletons. Among them was a soldier, identifiable by a sword and scabbard.

That same year, excavators drilled through the rock plugging the entrances to the stone arches under the seawall. Huddled in one arch were the remains of six adults, four children and the young nursemaid cradling her infant charge in her arms. In a second arch, 48 skeletons lay in rows. Heaped up in the third were the tangled skeletons of 19 humans and a horse.

The victims had died an agonizing death, as their contorted jaws and flailing arms and legs revealed. But many appear more concerned for others than for themselves. A mother crouched over a child trying to protect it with one hand, while she cuddled a baby to her with the other. A husband and wife clung together, shielding a child between their bodies.

Sealed in volcanic rock and kept wet by groundwater percolating through the soil, the nearly 200 skeletons are marvelously preserved, some retaining bits of tissue and patches of hair. To prevent their bones from quickly decaying once exposed to air.

The subsequent studies of the skeletons tell us more about the habits and physical characteristics of the Romans than we have ever known before. The men averaged five feet seven inches in height, the women five feet two. They were generally well nourished, muscular and healthy, although a few bones showed evidence of arthritis, anemia and lead deposits. Their teeth were exceptionally good.

Practically the only people who did not enjoy good health were the slaves. The leg bones of the 46-year-old Helmsman were flattened from incessant labor plus poor nutrition. The constant strain on his back may have twisted his spine and fused six of the vertebrae together.

HERCULANEUM will make news for decades to come. A large part of the city still encased in rock, it has been called “archeology’s most flagrant unfinished business.” Waiting to be exhumed are temples, a theatre, magnificent villas, a covered market and dwellings and shops. 

Posted On : February 18 ,2014 13 : 9
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