In the wake of Vesuvius: Pompeii & Herculaneum
In AD79, a catastrophe befell the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum near modern day Naples, Italy. The earth shook and the mountain, Vesuvius, exploded raining an ash cloud down on the towns which according to sources, blocked the sun. The fearful locals had little time to react and many died in their beds.
The ruins were left undiscovered for more than a century until a tunnel was built in the modern town of Ercolano (Herculaneum) in the 19th century. Since then, a far larger site was excavated at Pompei (the Italian spelling of Pompeii) which is now world famous and although excavation continues to this day, the scale of the site alone is impressive.
This is a subject that has fascinated me since an early age and from my trip, I produced a video for a song I wrote about the disaster:
The best way to explain a visit to Pompei is to say that you will literally be exploring a city. It would be possible to spend days here and still find new things to see. Admittedly, a lot of it is very similar, ruins of houses and such, but simply being there and appreciating the scale of the disaster itself is worth the visit.
As well as the houses, there are highlights including the amphitheater which currently hosts a Pink Floyd exhibition following their performance in 1972 and subsequent visit by Dave Gilmour in 2017.
Also, the brothel, the house of the mysteries and the house of the faun are well worth seeing. The latter is where the great mosaic of Alexander the Great was discovered. Today, a replica of the mosaic has been installed at the site in Pompei where it was found (below):
The original (shown below) can be found in the archaeological museum in Naples. You can read more about the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli here.
The story of the mosaic tells the story of the ruins themselves in many ways. The site is very exposed and due to this, it is constantly changing. On the one hand, there are new areas being excavated but also, the already exposed ruins are at great risk from the elements and in some cases, finds are removed to protect the history they contain.
The volcano is huge. It dominates the sky from downtown Naples to the coastal town of Sorrento (roughly 50 km around the bay).
You can see in the shape of the volcano how much of the mountain exploded in 79AD and in visiting the summit to see the crater of this still active volcano, it is terrifying to see the power of the eruption.
One good way to illustrate the immensity of the blast is to consider that Pompei used to be a coastal town with a port... it is now located around 2km inland due to all the cooling lava and ash that was expelled...
The ruins of Herculaneum are in many ways better preserved than in Pompei. Situated in the heart of the modern day town of Ercolano, it is impressive to be able to survey the entire site from above.
Like Pompei, there are a lot of ruins of houses here but some of the mosaic work and wall decorations are still very much in place amongst the ruins and are spectacular to view. Highlights here include the bath house and some of the gardens amongst the ruins which give an idea of how the inhabitants would have lived at the height of the town’s power.
Towards the end of the visit, you walk past the bones of some of the victims, preserved in time as a grim reminder of the human cost of the disaster.
Written by Duncan Reed