Ruins of Herculaneum
Ruins of Herculaneum information
Unfairly upstaged by Pompeii's ancient offerings, the Ruins of Herculaneum have a wealth of archaeological finds, from ancient advertisements and stylish mosaics, to carbonised furniture and terror-struck skeletons. Indeed, this superbly conserved Roman fishing town of 4000 inhabitants is smaller and easier to navigate than Pompeii, and can be explored with a map and audioguide (€6.50, €10 for two).
From the site's main gateway on Corso Resina, head down the wide boulevard, where you'll find the ticket office on the left. Pick up a free map and guide booklet here, and then follow the boulevard right to the actual entrance into the ruins themselves.
Herculaneum's fate runs parallel to that of Pompeii. Destroyed by an earthquake in AD 62, the AD 79 eruption of Mt Vesuvius saw it submerged in a 16m-thick sea of mud that essentially fossilised the city. This meant that even delicate items, such as furniture and clothing, were discovered remarkably well preserved. Tragically, the inhabitants didn't fare so well; thousands of people tried to escape by boat but were suffocated by the volcano's poisonous gases. Indeed, what appears to be a moat around the town is in fact the ancient shoreline. It was here in 1980 that archaeologists discovered some 300 skeletons, the remains of a crowd that had fled to the beach only to be overcome by the terrible heat of clouds surging down from Vesuvius.
The town itself was rediscovered in 1709 and amateur excavations were carried out intermittently until 1874, with many finds being carted off to Naples to decorate the houses of the well-to-do or to end up in museums. Serious archaeological work began again in 1927 and continues to this day, although with much of the ancient site buried beneath modern Ercolano it's slow going. Indeed, note that at any given time some houses will invariably be shut for restoration; at the time of writing these included the Terme Suburbane and the Casa dell'Atrio a Mosaico.
Casa d'Argo & Casa dello Scheletro
As you begin your exploration northeast along Cardo III you'll stumble across Casa d'Argo (Argus House). This noble pad would originally have opened onto Cardo II (as yet unearthed). Onto its porticoed, palm-treed garden open a triclinium (dining room) and other residential rooms. Across the street sits the Casa dello Scheletro (House of the Skeleton), a modestly sized house boasting five styles of mosaic flooring, including a design of white arrows at the entrance to guide the most disorientated of guests. In the internal courtyard, don't miss the skylight, complete with the remnants of an ancient security grill. Of the house's mythically themed wall mosaics, only the faded ones are originals; the others now reside in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale .
Just across the Decumano Inferiore (one of ancient Herculaneum's main streets), the Terme Maschili (Male Baths) were the men's section of the Terme del Foro (Forum Baths). Note the ancient latrine to the left of the entrance before you step into the apodyterium (changing room), complete with bench for waiting patrons and a nifty wall shelf for sandal and toga storage. While those after a bracing soak would pop into the frigidarium (cold bath) to the left, the less stoic headed straight into the tepadarium (tepid bath) to the right. The sunken mosaic floor here is testament to the seismic activity preceding Mt Vesuvius's catastrophic eruption. Beyond this room lies the caldarium (hot bath), as well as an exercise area.
At the end of Cardo III, turn right into the Decumano Massimo. This ancient high street is lined with shops; fragments of advertisements still adorn the walls, such as that to the right of the Casa del Salone Nero. This ancient consumer information listed everything from from the weight of goods to their price.
Further east along Decumano Massimo, a crucifix found in an upstairs room of the Casa del Bicentenario (Bicentenary House) provides possible evidence of a Christian presence in pre-Vesuvius Herculaneum.
Casa del Bel Cortile & Casa di Nettuno e Anfitrite
Turning into Cardo IV from Decumano Massimo, you'll hit the Casa del Bel Cortile (House of the Beautiful Courtyard). Inside lie three of the 300 skeletons discovered on the ancient shore by archaeologists in 1980. Almost two millennia later, it's still a poignant sight to see the assumed mother, father and young child huddled together in the last, terrifying moments of their lives.
Next door awaits the Casa di Nettuno e Anfitrite (House of Neptune and Amfitrite), an aristocratic pad taking its name from the extraordinary mosaic in the nymphaeum (fountain and bath). The warm colours in which the sea god and his nymph bride are depicted hint at how lavish the original interior must once have been.
A quick walk further southwest along Cardo IV leads you to the women's section of the Terme del Foro, the Terme Femminili. Though smaller than its male equivalent, it boasts finer floor mosaics – note the beautifully executed naked figure of Triton in the apodyterium (changing room).
Casa del Tramezzo di Legno
Across the Decumano Inferiore is the Case del Tramezzo di Legno (House of the Wooden Partition), which unusually features two atria. It's likely that the atria belonged to two separate houses merged together in the 1st century AD. Predictably, the most famous relic here is a wonderfully well-preserved wooden screen, separating the atrium from the tablinum , where the owner talked business with his clients. The second room off the left side of the atrium features the remains of an ancient bed.
Casa dell'Atrio a Mosaico
Further southwest on Cardio IV, ancient mansion Casa dell'Atrio a Mosaico (House of the Mosaic Atrium) harbours extensive floor mosaics, although time and nature have left the floor buckled and uneven. Particularly noteworthy is the black-and-white chessboard mosaic in the atrium.
Backtrack up Cardo IV and turn right at Decumano Inferiore. Here you'll find the Casa del Gran Portale (House of the Large Portal), named after the elegant brick Corinthian columns that flank its main entrance. Step inside to admire some well-preserved wall paintings.
Casa dei Cervi
Accessible from Cardo V, the Casa dei Cervi (House of the Stags) is an imposing example of a Roman noble family's house which, before the volcanic mud slide, boasted a seafront address. Constructed around a central courtyard, the two-storey villa contains murals and some beautiful still-life paintings. Waiting for you in the courtyard is a diminutive pair of marble deer assailed by dogs, and an engaging statue of a drunken, peeing Hercules.
Marking the site's southernmost tip is the 1st-century AD Terme Suburbane (Suburban Baths), one of the best preserved bath complexes in existence, with deep pools, stucco friezes and bas-reliefs looking down upon marble seats and floors. This is also one of the best places to observe the soaring volcanic deposits that literally smothered the ancient coastline.
Getting There & Away
If you're travelling to the scavi (ruins) by Circumvesuviana train (€2.10 from Naples or Sorrento), get off at Ercolano-Scavi station and walk 500m downhill to the ruins – follow the signs for the scavi down the main street, Via IV Novembre. En route you'll pass the tourist office on your right.