Herculaneum: An Overview

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Herculaneum, named after the hero Hercules, was a small town in Campania on the west coast of central Italy, some 8km south-east of Naples. Its origins are unclear: the name and the regularity of the urban planning suggest that it may have been connected with the Greek settlement at Naples, but the recorded languages used in the town are Oscan and then Latin, both native Italic languages. As elsewhere in southern Italy, an originally Greek foundation may have become ‘Italicised’ through conquest or assimilation. In the fourth century BC Herculaneum was a member of the Samnite league but was later allied to Rome, although it sided with the Italian allies in the Social War of 91–87 BC. Boasting only a small harbour, its main advantages were its excellent climate and its seaside position, and it grew into a holiday resort and luxurious retreat for the wealthy landowners who built and bought estates there. The largest villa, the so-called Villa of the Papyri, is widely believed to have been owned by Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, L. Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Herculaneum, along with the neighbouring towns of Pompeii, Stabiae and Oplontis, was destroyed in the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius on the 24th of August, AD 79. Herculaneum was buried in pyroclastic rockslides that were sufficiently hot to carbonise organic material and cause the instant death of anyone still in the town at that point: seafront warehouses discovered in the late 20th century were filled with the skeletons of people hoping to escape by sea. This layer of rock has preserved the remains of Herculaneum very well over the last two millennia, but it is also very difficult to remove—just one of the problems that the site poses to archaeologists. Deserted and forgotten after the eruption, the ancient site was rediscovered in the late eighteenth century and explored by means of tunnels dug into and through the buildings. Among the many precious finds was one almost beyond belief: in the Villa of the Papyri some 1800 scrolls were discovered, the only library from the ancient world to survive into the modern era. Unrolling these scrolls was a difficult and destructive process, and even once they were unravelled, the carbonisation meant that the text was often impossible to decipher. These problems continue to make reading the scrolls problematic, but new developments in computer imaging techniques such as those developed at Brigham Young University mean that previously invisible text can be deciphered. Tantalisingly, more scrolls may still remain in the unexcavated portion of the Villa, which was revealed in the 1990s to be larger than previously thought. Herculaneum poses difficulties both in excavation and in preservation: much work needs to be done to safeguard what has been uncovered. However, it remains one of the most exciting prospects for classical archaeology, and furthermore offers the hope that one day more books will be discovered that might revolutionise our view of the ancient world.

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